Late Night TV Hosts vs Trumpland, Part 2

Late night TV comedy hosts - Donald Trump - Conservatives - Progressivism - Bias

As late night TV hosts double down on their anti-conservative themes, opportunities for Left and Right to come together away from politics continue to dwindle, to everyone’s cost

Following Jimmy Kimmel’s recent pronouncement that nearly all talk show hosts are left-wing because only progressives have the required intellect to read jokes into a television camera, I wrote a bit of a meditation on why extending the politicising of everything to the realm of late night TV can only be a bad thing for society.

As amusing as I find the likes of Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher – and at their best, they are searingly funny – one cannot complain about division in society while simultaneously pitching late night talk shows to only half of the country. Even if it makes short-term business sense to drive up ratings by pandering to a particular partisan demographic, it comes at the cost of strengthening the bubble effect and ensuring that the left-wing comedians and their cheering audiences continue to be perplexed and outraged by the concerns, priorities and actions of whole other demographic groups they never bothered to understand.

Joseph Epstein picks up the same thread in the Wall Street Journal today, lamenting the way that late night comedy has jettisoned nonpartisan humour in favour of preachy, hectoring progressivism:

In a political time as divisive as ours, a public figure loses roughly half his following—and hence his charm—just as soon as he announces his politics. For an entertainer to do so is perhaps even more hazardous.

That the late-night talk-show hosts are ready to give up a large share of the audience to indulge their politics is something new in American comedy. Whatever Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle, Joan Rivers or Johnny Carson might have thought about what was happening in Washington, they wisely kept it to themselves. When Charlie Chaplin was revealed as a Communist fellow-traveler in the late 1930s it hurt his reputation, though he never allowed his politics directly to influence his art. On the other side, when Bob Hope found himself, because of his support for the Vietnam War, aligned with Richard Nixon, many of his most steadfast fans deserted him. The lesson, one should have thought, is that comedy and politics don’t mix.

It is worth remembering just how recent a phenomenon this really is. Jay Leno, the former king of late night (whom I found tremendously unfunny) personally skewed to the right but refrained from turning The Tonight Show into After Hours at the Heritage Foundation in favour of a gentler, undiscriminating mockery. And as I wrote the other day, even Jon Stewart managed to excoriate the Bush administration for its manifold failings without coming across as dismissive or hostile towards those who may have voted for George W. Bush. The Daily Show always had a leftward tilt, but there was still some entertainment value for conservatives; it is hard to imagine a Trump voter watching Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel or Bill Maher with any enjoyment.

And yet this approach is clearly good business, because turning on the television in primetime is increasingly like watching Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals made flesh, night after night. Meanwhile, advertisers exercise their prerogative to stop their ads from being shown during the shows of right-wing opinion journalists on cable news, but are only too happy to have their brands associated with comedians who speak exclusively to one half of the country. Again, that is their right, the free market in action, but that only brings me back to my original point – that society is in a pretty wretched state when half the country is fair game for comedians and written off by large corporations while the other half  is pandered to by both.

Epstein goes on to make the same point:

Enough people must share the views of these hosts to keep the careers of Maher, Colbert, Kimmel & Co. afloat, which is to say to keep their ratings high enough to be commercially viable. Yet these insufficiently funny comedians, with their crude political humor, do little more than add to the sad divisiveness that is rending the country. Something, surely, has been lost if one can no longer turn to comedy as a relief from the general woes of life and the greater farce that has for some years now been playing out in our everyday politics.

We have seen what can happen when key institutions of society tilt too far one way or the other, and the destructive knock-on effects which are sometimes unleashed as a consequence. The persistent soft-left bias of the mainstream media was instrumental in driving the success of conservative talk radio in the 1990s, and then right-wing online outlets such as the Drudge Report. The free market in action, yes, but also an encouragement for the political right to decamp into a self-contained ideological bubble of their own, a swamp where exaggerations and conspiracy theories festered, leading first to obstructionist Tea Party representatives and ultimately to Donald Trump himself.

And as conservatives departed the mainstream for their new niche market refuges, so the ideological balance of those who remained tilted ever further to the left, spurring the creation of an equal and opposite left-wing bubble in what was once the unbiased mainstream space, now replete with its own insatiable demands for bias confirming facts and narratives.

Obviously this pattern is far more troubling as it pertains to the media than the relatively trivial world of late night television, but still the latter it is yet more evidence of the same divisive force at work. Where people of all political persuasions could once happily watch Johnny Carson or Jay Leno, now the Left has captured virtually the entirety of  mainstream television programming, with younger web-savvy conservatives seeking equally politicised conservative-skewed comedy such as Steven Crowder‘s growing media empire (his show is also very good).

Individually there is nothing wrong with any of these shows; it is not as though Stephen Colbert represents an existential threat to the fabric of American society. The problem is that the cumulative effect of this divisiveness, this self-segregation generally initiated by the Left and eventually responded to by the Right, is that over time there are fewer and fewer meeting grounds where people of all political stripes can gather as Americans (or Brits, for we have the same problem here) first and foremost. Our national town square is shrinking, and at a time when we most need to reach within ourselves to find empathy for those with different political views, instead we retreat into mockery and incomprehension.

I wonder if those late night TV talk show hosts whose careers are presently flourishing under Donald Trump will ever come to realise that they, too, are catalysts in this destructive Trumpian reaction?

Stephen Colbert interviews Donald Trump

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The Age Of Perpetual Crisis

The Age of Anxiety - Ballet

When every single issue is falsely portrayed as a burning crisis, none of our national challenges will receive the considered attention they deserve

“We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.” 
― W. H. Auden. The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue

The housing crisis. The migrant crisis. The productivity crisis. The deficit crisis. The tedious, annual NHS winter crisis. Brexit. Nearly every important issue or event in our politics is portrayed as a pressing, existential crisis, despite few of them even remotely living up to the definition. If you are sceptical, just ask somebody who was alive and situationally aware in 1940 whether any of the issues which excite politicians and newspaper editors today amount to a real crisis, and see what they have to tell you.

And as it is in Britain, so it is across the Atlantic in America. Surveying the present scene, David French writes in the National Review:

In politics, when everything’s a crisis, it turns out that EVERYTHING’S A CRISIS!

We keep reading that Donald Trump is a unique danger to American democracy, a threat we should put aside partisan tribalism to defeat. Then, seconds later, we read that giving Americans the choice to buy health insurance will kill people by the thousands. Seconds after that, we learn that an entirely conventional Republican tax plan will not only kill people but also extinguish American democracy as we know it. Finally, we read that the end of net neutrality — a regulatory doctrine that only the smallest percentage of Americans even remotely understand — will extinguish American liberty.

[..] For the average American, who pays less attention to politics than to his professional and personal lives, all of this is exhausting. It’s numbing to the point where he can’t possibly determine what’s important and what’s not. So he checks out. He throws his hands in the air and gives up. But for the Americans who care the most about politics and drive our public debate, perpetual crisis is invigorating. It provides meaning and purpose.

A nation’s political culture is always defined by the people who care the most, and the people who care the most in our nation have lost all sense of proportion.

Charles Cooke makes a similar point, but at the more personal level, in the same publication:

Ours is a moment in which millions rush breathlessly to exclaim. In defense! In resistance! In bloody-minded persistence! “I will not back down!” we are told, by people who have not been asked to, and could not be compelled to. They won’t be “intimidated” either, nor “silenced,” nor “bullied” nor, it seems, pushed to any form of self-reflection. Indignation, not analysis, is the perennial order of the day, and the tone of our debates is ineluctably Twitteresque. Retweets are points on the board, and hyperbole gets you oodles of them. The worst. Ding! Insane. Ding! Crisis. Ding, ding, ding! Congratulations, you have been promoted to the next level.

I don’t think I have ever read a more perceptive or honest summary of how political Twitter works, and as a denizen of this world I see more than a few of these negative traits in my own work, some due to personal failures but more often because the difficult pathway to being heard and gaining an audience on social media incentivises some pretty negative behaviours.

It is in the nature of those involved in politics – either doing or writing about it – to imbue their work and their passions with an air of existential importance. In many ways, this is understandable – it is hard to get a hearing in the media, or from the People Who Matter, with a piece of sober, rational analysis addressing a long-running issue; harder still when the competition presents every new report or white paper as some kind of magical elixir to the nation’s woes.

Given the choice, most people want to be Neil Armstrong and not the dedicated but overlooked engineers and project managers who made the Apollo Program a reality. Or if politics is showbusiness for ugly people then most players want to walk the red carpet and be photographed, not lurk in obscurity editing screenplays or building sets. This is human nature, but it has the unfortunate side effect of warping our political process, bending it towards flashy but superficial quick fixes and wonder cures rather than holistic analysis and serious reform.

The word “crisis” in particular is used far too readily at present, by people who should know better. The nature of politics and public policy means that nearly every important decision will ultimately have some direct or indirect impact which can be measured in terms of human lives, thus making it existentially important to at least a few people. In fact, the Left in particular rely on this very phenomenon, since their conspicuous compassion policies front-load the emotional benefits of throwing resources at a problem while deferring or even denying the costs – after all, it is easy to win applause and positive headlines by opposing welfare or healthcare reform, but much harder to counsel delayed gratification or highlight the cumulative toll of welfare dependency on the quality and duration of human life.

But in actual fact there are very few actual full-blown crises facing us at the present time, despite the best efforts of opportunistic politicians and the media to suggest otherwise. Rather, there are a series of slow-burning, serious and often intractable problems which need to be tackled, few of which are likely to lead to sudden national ruin but many of which – if left unattended much longer – have the potential to chip away incessantly at our economic prosperity, national security, democratic health or the stability and cohesion of our society.

The appalling failure of successive governments to adopt a sensible housing policy and increase the housing stock will not lead to an explosion in homelessness or destitution overnight, but it will lead to a continuing sense of rage, disillusionment and alienation among younger voters, as it is already doing. Continuing to stand by an immigration system which proudly fails to make skills or likelihood of assimilation and popular consent the key drivers will not lead to riots in the street tomorrow, but it will continue to drive a wedge between the political class and much of the country. Continuing to enshrine the NHS as our national religion and abide by the strict political doctrine of NHS non tangere will not create an immediate spike in death rates, but it will ensure that UK health outcomes continue to further lag behind those countries with the best healthcare systems.

Labelling something a “crisis” suggests imminent peril requiring immediate remedy, even if the resulting damage control ultimately creates other problems or only succeeds in kicking the can down the road. It advocates for quick fixes, which is exactly what we don’t want at this time. In this period of discontinuity, where the old political settlement has broken down and traditional, familiar policy prescriptions neither work effectively nor command sufficient public confidence, what we need are carefully thought-out and mutually supporting policies rooted in an uncompromising, forensic analysis of the precise problems we face. What we absolutely do not need are a bunch of panicked gimmicks and pseudo-policies cooked up in silos by desperate politicians and leaders whose sole objective is to survive the day and avoid negative headlines.

The difficult truth is this: there is no one pressing crisis the resolution of which will solve all our problems and keep us safe and prosperous in a changing world, and there is no universal and comprehensive solution to any of the problems we deem to be crises. Housing cannot be addressed without revising planning rules, but it is also impossible to adequately plan future housing and infrastructure when there is no meaningful control over mass immigration. Low productivity cannot be addressed without looking at corporate governance, secondary and tertiary education, workers’ rights, union power and addressing the weak commitment to R&D. Indeed across the board there is no silver bullet, no quick fix, no political party with all the right answers, no system of government ideally equipped for the challenge. We must forge a new path.

Far from focusing attention and driving positive change, labelling everything a crisis merely creates apathy, causes many voters to check out and encourages many politicians to either view problems in a highly compartmentalised way or else simply consider them insurmountable, facts of life to be dealt with rather than challenges to be overcome – just as many in the British establishment seemed resigned to irreversible national decline in the 1970s, before Thatcherism finally equipped Britain with the tools to dig ourselves out from the last major period of discontinuity this country faced.

Britain emerged stronger from the late 1970s and 80s because after years of paralysing indecision and timid half-measures from Tory and Labour governments alike we finally made a calm, methodical and dispassionate analysis of the problems holding us back – excessive union power, flawed monetary policy, excessive state involvement in the economy – and set about tackling each of these issues in a coordinated way, as part of a comprehensive national turnaround strategy.

We need to adopt just such a process again today in order to overcome this new period of discontinuity and the specific challenges that it brings. And the first step is to stop viewing every last issue as a standalone, burning crisis.

 

Munch - The Scream

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The Battle For British Conservatism: Book Progress Update

Atlantis Books shop Oia Santorini Greece

A tedious race against time

As I mentioned last month, I am in the slow, tortuous process of writing a book on the challenges and future of British conservatism, based partly on my writings on this blog and augmented where appropriate with new material.

It turns out that writing a book is quite hard. Who knew? And yet a whole host of verifiable idiots seem to effortlessly churn the things out one after another; but then I suppose many of them have collaborators, researchers or ghostwriters. By contrast, my humble little book (much like this blog) remains very much a side-hustle, and one which necessarily takes third place to work and another significant ongoing project (details TBC) for the time being.

Right now I have a 30-page outline in Google Documents which is being sporadically worked on as I slowly transform terse bullet points, links to my past articles and stream-of-consciousness paragraphs into the final text. I hope to self-publish on Amazon and iBooks (or whatever else those young whippersnappers use, with their loud music and Pac-Man video games) by early in the new year, closer to Christmas if things progress smoothly. Maybe I’ll tweet it out in a 5000-tweet thread or broadcast it on SnapChat, who knows?

I can’t help but notice, as I set to work, that much of the UK political media has finally woken up to the fact that there might be something ideologically dysfunctional within the Tory Party, hence the sudden proliferation of “OMG the Tories have lost their way!” articles in all the prestige media and main political websites. Well done guys, it only took four years for you to catch up (ten years if we count Peter Hitchens as the pace-setter, which we probably should).

Joking aside, this is somewhat frustrating as I know full well that ideas first expounded on this blog (which I know is sometimes read by mainstream UK political journalists even if they almost never deign to link to me or re-tweet my stuff) will soon be appearing in rival books which have the backing of actual publishers and real distribution networks. And in a few short months, a bunch of self-satisfied hacks who only a few months ago could still be found praising the dismal, centrist Tory party to the rafters will be smugly sitting in television studios pontificating on how they were the first to recognise that something was wrong in Toryland. “Where did the Tories go wrong?” will likely be early 2018’s version of “So, Brexit happened” in terms of topical political book sub-genres ravenously pounced upon by the Westminster elite.

Therefore I find myself in a bit of a race to market against these guys, not because I will be remotely competing with them for critical acclaim or market share (I’ll celebrate if I end up selling fifty of the darn things and anybody outside my social circle pays the blindest bit of attention) but purely because I want the personal and intellectual satisfaction of getting my long-held ideas and warnings in print before the prestige media elite saunter along to claim insights first published on this blog as personal, original revelations of their own. Obviously there is a quality/speed trade-off at work, and I don’t want to release any old rubbish prematurely. But I also really, really don’t want to see Fraser Nelson’s Comprehensive Explanation Of The Conservative Dilemma staring down at me from a shelf in Waterstone’s before I have gone on the record myself. That would be significantly sub-optimal.

So I continue to work away on this project in the background. You may have noticed a new series on the blog called “The Battle For British Conservatism” (first article here), some of which will undoubtedly feed into the book (and which will hopefully feature some more interesting guest contributions), but other blog updates may be slightly more sparse for awhile as my energies are diverted.

In the meantime, it would be tremendously helpful to me if readers not already signed up for email updates could do so by signing up right underneath the Facebook sidebar on the right (if you’re reading on a smartphone or tablet then it may be waaaay at the bottom of the page). I will be using the blog’s hitherto-untapped mailing list to keep everyone updated on the book and offer a discount for readers – not that it will cost more than a London pint anyway.

In the meantime, if anyone sees Owen Bennett, Isabel Hardman or Tim Stanley hunched over a MacBook in Starbucks writing something vaguely similar, please give me a heads-up so I can stock up on Red Bull and pull the required all-nighters to beat them to the finish line.

Cheers!

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Harvey Weinstein Hypocrisy And The Westminster Cesspit

Westminster Big Ben Telephone Box

British journalists have reported and commented extensively on the Harvey Weinstein scandal, yet seem curiously unwilling to lift the lid on the seediness and sexual harassment which routinely takes place within their own industry

In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (were you as stunned as I was?!) we have seen a range of responses from genuinely shocking and awful first-hand accounts of serious harassment and abuse to the now-obligatory collective guilt lectures delivered condescendingly to All Men.

But I am particularly interested in the response of journalists and commentators in Britain who took the time to report on a sexual harassment scandal unfolding in Hollywood while remaining curiously silent about a similar culture at work in their own industry.

I make no pretence of being a Westminster insider, but in my life on the far, far outer periphery I have attended a number of political functions, meetings, party conferences, boozy book launches and parties where very high profile journalists and moderately high profile politicians were present, and I have seen behaviour with my own eyes which would shame some of those who lent their voices to the chorus of condemnation of Harvey Weinstein and other serial alleged harassers. I have also heard disturbing personal accounts of inappropriate and unwanted advances by married men in the media, though having been relayed to me in confidence, these are not my stories to tell.

The seediness of Westminster politics is reasonably well known, but while political journalists are generally now willing to report on politicians when they come a cropper, most are understandably much less eager to lift the lid on their own sub-clique. Yet ultimately, journalism is no different from many other professions where people work, travel, eat, rest and play with the same group of colleagues in a high-pressure environment. Throw in the fact that politics and political journalism falls squarely into the “showbusiness for ugly people” category and is dominated by big beasts who grew up in a very different Fleet Street era and young people desperate to get a break, and a pulsating atmosphere of illicit romances, scandals and unwanted advances is all but guaranteed.

I have been to events where wine-sodden journalists said eyebrow-raisingly inappropriate things which made others feel uncomfortable, or in some cases made fumbling physical advances which had to be repeatedly warded off by the unfortunate recipient. Most of these incidents amounted to little more than general slovenliness and lechery, the kind of thing which reflect badly on a person but should not necessarily end a career or put somebody in court. But other times the behaviour I witnessed and heard about fell distinctly into the dodgy end of the grey zone.

And yet so far the only people from the political media world to have faced any kind of scrutiny in Britain are the writers Rupert Myers and Sam Kriss – both of whose cases were summarily tried in the fiery crucible of the Twitter and Facebook Star Chamber with no due process. As happened for so long in Hollywood pre-Weinstein, a couple of relatively minor fish in British political journalism are being made scapegoats so that the Big Fish can swim on unsated, undaunted and unchecked.

Much is being written about the bravery (or lack thereof) exhibited by certain individuals in Hollywood in their dealings with Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men accused of sexual harassment. And many of us probably feel rightful admiration for the brave few who first came forward at considerable personal risk, and shake our heads at the powerful A-listers who didn’t once think to risk anything to warn or protect others.

But I am curious about the household name journalists who behave nearly as badly at SW1 events or party conference hotel ballrooms yet go unreported and unpunished year after year. And I am particularly interested in their media peers, who know exactly what is going on and whether or not it fits a pattern of behaviour, and find all the time in the world to excoriate Harvey Weinstein while saying nothing about the atrocious behaviour that occurs right under their noses.

Tom Bradby, former ITV News political editor and current anchor of News at Ten wrote quite a stirring call-to-arms about an unpleasant “lads culture” at his old rugby club and various stag parties he later attended. Yet after all his years at the top of British political journalism he couldn’t think of any relevant anecdotes about his own peers and colleagues of sufficient concern to make it into the article? Perhaps not; Bradby may very well have purposefully avoided many of the booze-fuelled, bacchanalian evening events which make up the Westminster social calendar, and saw nothing. But I suspect that many others of equal seniority and profile to Bradby know exactly what goes on but give their own industry a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

As anyone who works in politics and answers truthfully will attest, Westminster can be a very seedy place. I understand that the ascension of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 saw some dispossessed Labour centrists indulge in behaviour which would have been considered scandalous at King Belshazzar’s feast. It seems likely that Theresa May’s bungled campaign and the trauma of election night this summer saw some similar desperation-fuelled behavioural lapses on the Right.

The two mini scandals du jour – Labour’s Clive Lewis getting a bit verbally carried away at a Momentum event in Brighton or Jared O’Mara having posted unsavoury comments on the internet fifteen years ago as a young man  – barely scratch the surface of what goes on. Indeed, these cases are almost decoys, relatively minor transgressions being seized upon so that the accused can be made scapegoats for the graver sins of a much larger group. One almost wonders whether the enthusiasm with which the UK political blogosphere, print and television media picked up these stories was a way of over-compensating for the profound silence about what takes place within their own camp.

But this seediness and sexual harassment within British politics and journalism will not be eradicated by offering up some scrawny, barely-known writer from Vice or a slightly bigger deal from GQ Magazine as a sacrifice to the Twitter gods. It will take a big fish to land a big fish – a heavyweight figure from a major publication or broadcaster must put their credibility on the line. The world of politics and journalism, like Hollywood, is a very hard industry to crack and those struggling to gain admittance from the outside risk everything by speaking out, even as they are the ones predominantly being preyed upon by grotesque, self-satisfied insiders.

One day – perhaps quite soon, given the rapidity with which Harvey Weinstein fell from grace – one of the big beasts of UK political journalism will be revealed for what they are. Somebody who everybody in the Westminster political/media world has been paying obsequious homage to for years will receive first one allegation of improper conduct, then another, and then a steady drip-drip of accusations until the sudden resignation, admission of “errors of judgment” and flight to celebrity rehab inevitably follow.

And when that happens, we will all be sitting here wondering how it was that so many people whose sole job it is to unearth and report stories of public interest – so many respected, well remunerated household names – somehow neglected to mention what was going on in their own back yard.

And what little scrap of credibility the Westminster media retains will be gone for good.

 

Harvey Weinstein - Meryl Streep

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The Best One Percent

In his brief remarks to the media, General John Kelly, chief of staff to President Donald Trump, momentarily made everybody else in Washington D.C. look small

Good speeches do not always have to be painstakingly crafted well in advance and written down or beamed onto a teleprompter. Neither do good speeches always require a grand event as their backdrop. Sometimes the most stirring speeches can be extemporaneous, or at least appear relatively spontaneous when delivered.

And into this latter category fall the remarks made yesterday by former Marine Corps general John Kelly, chief of staff to President Donald Trump. Kelly was seeking to defend his boss from accusations that the president had been dismissive bordering on callous when making a telephone call of commiserations to the wife of a fallen US soldier killed in an ambush in Niger, a call which was overheard by a Democratic congresswoman and reported to the media.

I make no comment about the individual circumstances of the case here, though many other media organisations have seen fit to voyeuristically pick over what should be an intensely private moment in order to extract political advantage from it. For those interested, the two opposing sides are effectively summarised here and here.

Far more inspirational than this tawdry back-and-forth, however, were the words of Chief of Staff John Kelly, who sought to end the unseemly debate by describing to the press corps in detail the process which takes place when a US service member is killed in action overseas. These remarks range from the very detailed and practical (describing exactly what happens to the body and where it is taken) to the profound, and are worth quoting at length.

Kelly begins:

Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, our Coast Guardsmen in combat. So let me tell you what happens:

Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud, puts them on a helicopter as a routine, and sends them home. Their first stop along the way is when they’re packed in ice, typically at the airhead. And then they’re flown to, usually, Europe where they’re then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where Dover takes care of the remains, embalms them, meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the medals that they’ve earned, the emblems of their service, and then puts them on another airplane linked up with a casualty officer escort that takes them home.

A very, very good movie to watch, if you haven’t ever seen it, is “Taking Chance,” where this is done in a movie — HBO setting. Chance Phelps was killed under my command right next to me, and it’s worth seeing that if you’ve never seen it.

So that’s the process. While that’s happening, a casualty officer typically goes to the home very early in the morning and waits for the first lights to come on. And then he knocks on the door; typically a mom and dad will answer, a wife. And if there is a wife, this is happening in two different places; if the parents are divorced, three different places. And the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member and stays with that family until — well, for a long, long time, even after the internment. So that’s what happens.

This is made all the more poignant by the fact that John Kelly suffered the loss of his son – First Lieutenant Robert Kelly – in Afghanistan, and presumably experienced this same heart wrenching process, something invisible to most civilians in the age of an all-volunteer professional army.

The brief core of Kelly’s remarks then focus on the fine qualities of the men and women who serve in the US military, before defending the actions of his boss. First, the praise:

Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them. But they are the very best this country produces, and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required. But that’s all right.

Goodness me, that’s powerful. Remember, this is a former Marine Corps general and the serving chief of staff to President Trump, and he is saying that the state of the country is such that America is no longer worthy of the sacrifice made by its men and women in uniform. Think on that for a moment.

And then comes the necessary defence of President Trump, in which Kelly references his own painful loss:

So he called four people the other day and expressed his condolences in the best way that he could. And he said to me, what do I say? I said to him, sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.

Well, let me tell you what I told him. Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted.

This next section (which reminds one of Cicero’s exclamation O Tempora, O Mores!) is good too, because it is so obviously heartfelt coming from somebody from an older generation raised in a dignity culture:

It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life — the dignity of life — is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well.

Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. But I just thought — the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.

Kelly ends with this scathing criticism of politicians such as the congresswoman who saw fit to leak details of President Trump’s telephone call to one of the families:

I’ll end with this: In October — April, rather, of 2015, I was still on active duty, and I went to the dedication of the new FBI field office in Miami. And it was dedicated to two men who were killed in a firefight in Miami against drug traffickers in 1986 — a guy by the name of Grogan and Duke. Grogan almost retired, 53 years old; Duke, I think less than a year on the job. Anyways, they got in a gunfight and they were killed. Three other FBI agents were there, were wounded, and now retired. So we go down — Jim Comey gave an absolutely brilliant memorial speech to those fallen men and to all of the men and women of the FBI who serve our country so well, and law enforcement so well.

There were family members there. Some of the children that were there were three or four years old when their dads were killed on that street in Miami-Dade. Three of the men that survived the fight were there, and gave a rendition of how brave those men were and how they gave their lives.

And a congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money — the $20 million — to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.

But, you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, okay, fine.

So I still hope, as you write your stories, and I appeal to America, that let’s not let this maybe last thing that’s held sacred in our society — a young man, young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country — let’s try to somehow keep that sacred. But it eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.

As a speech, this has pretty much everything. It might not have been the most stirring or poetic, but John Kelly is a blunt, military man and to have spoken in the cadence of John F Kennedy or Barack Obama would have been totally false and out of character. The authenticity of Kelly’s remarks derive from the seriousness of the subject, the dignified way in which a story of personal loss was mentioned (compared to the overt emotionalism of many contemporary speakers) and the workmanlike delivery.

What John Kelly did more than anything else was shame the people who had sought to cynically use a story based on the death of American soldiers for their own purposes – be it Democratic politicians looking for more character flaws in Trump, Republican politicians who sought to defend Trump or the media who saw a potentially juicy mini-scandal which would generate pageviews and ad revenue.

He shamed a group of neophytes and cynics, people who by and large did not serve in uniform themselves, but saw fit to pontificate on the protocol governing military rituals as though they were discussing any old arcane political dispute. Kelly effectively contrasts the quiet, selfless duty of American soldiers with the self-aggrandising behaviour of American politicians. And there can be few among the Washington DC political class, who measure their popularity by the number of their Twitter followers and see themselves as the centre of the universe, who did not come out of that press conference feeling at least slightly chastened.

This can also only be good for the career and reputation of John Kelly himself, who has faced scepticism that he would be able to rein in the excesses of the Trump administration and criticism for those occasions when that superhuman feat eluded him. By briefly lamenting that women are no longer honoured in today’s America (putting aside the fact that such 1950s-style honour was a double-edged sword), Kelly not-so-subtly denounced his own boss, whose record of behaviour towards women is not good. Criticising the politicisation of gold star families during the Democratic National Convention served the same purpose. Thus, Kelly successfully burnished his image as a man serving out of duty to his country and respect for the office of president rather than admiration for the individual who currently holds that office.

I struggle to think of a contemporary British political speech of similar power and worth. Does anybody recall any of the speeches given this party conference season, besides the slow-motion self-destruction of Theresa May? Has there been a British political speech in the last decade which made the heart beat a little faster or brought a lump to the throat?This is made even more depressing when one remembers that John Kelly is not even a politician – he is a retired general pressed into service to steady a wobbling first-year Trump administration.

Kelly’s remarks are a fine example of an effective speech, composed and well delivered under difficult circumstances, with a hostile media audience ready to throw hard-to-defend accusations against his equally hard-to-defend boss. Yet by the time he was done, John Kelly walked out of that briefing room ten feet taller while everyone else visibly shrank in moral stature.

That’s impressive. I would like to import just a fraction of that ability to Westminster.

 

UPDATE: 21 October

This report from the Washington Post suggests that John Kelly’s account of Representative Frederica Wilson’s speech at the newly-opened FBI building was not accurate. This in no way detracts from the power of the speech or even necessarily mean that Gen. Kelly’s righteous indignation was altogether misplaced, but the record should be corrected.

 

UPDATE: 22 October

Having sat back rather pleased with myself, thinking I might have written something vaguely original, I discovered today that Jonah Goldberg was simultaneously coming to the same conclusion in his G-file newsletter.

Goldberg sees in Kelly’s speech the same thing that I see – a dignified admonishment to President Trump as much as to the media or the Left:

The trends Kelly alludes to are real and lamentable, and they predate Donald Trump’s arrival on the national political scene. But it strikes me as indisputable that Trump personifies these trends, and if Kelly were not trying to do his job, he would acknowledge that.

Perhaps Kelly was criticizing the Gold Star Khan family in his remarks about the convention. But he could just as plausibly have had the president in mind. We need not rehearse all of the ways in which Donald Trump — who has bragged of his adultery and sexual assaults and who has insulted women’s looks — has less than an exemplary record of honoring the sanctity of women.

I understand that many Christian groups have convinced themselves that Trump is an instrument of God, but let us not delude ourselves that he is also a man of God.

It is also worth pointing out the media’s evident latent, automatic animosity toward any member of the Trump administration, merited or not. When it was shown that John Kelly misreported the content of Rep. Wilson’s speech at the opening of the FBI Academy, nearly all the media ran with a headline about Kelly being wrong, or even lying. They neglected to point out that the video evidence actually also underlined the truth of what Kelly was trying to say – that on the occasion of the dedication of a building to the memory of slain law enforcement officers, the politician present chose to make the occasion about herself.

 

John Kelly - White House chief of staff - press briefing - Donald Trump call to military families

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