John McCain’s funeral services offered America a brief respite from a depressing summer of tribal politics and reminded us that strongly held beliefs need not result in boorish partisanship. To the contrary, those beliefs can and do inspire, especially when leavened with an understanding that tolerance and compassion are at the beating heart of American greatness.
His passing recalled another American patriot who died in 2014, Senator and Admiral Jeremiah Denton.
An Alabama-born, US Navy-bred and deeply conservative Denton first emerged on the national scene in 1967, as a POW in a Vietnamese prison. A Navy pilot, like John McCain, and possessed of an indomitable courage like McCain, Denton was singled out by his captors for particularly harsh abuse given his routine defiance of them. When his torturers thought they had finally broken him, they propped him in front of TV cameras to use his forced confession and denunciation of the United States as a propaganda victory.
Instead of submissively complying, as would be expected of even the toughest of American fighting men, Denton ingeniously blinked with his eyes the Morse code for “T-O-R-T-U-R-E,” feigning light sensitivity. It was first-hand confirmation that the Vietcong were indeed torturing its American captives. Like McCain, Denton’s grit inspired a nation at a terrible low point, when we most needed to believe they hadn’t given up the good fight.
So what made me think of Jeremiah Denton? Two Marines, perhaps figuratively “blinking” a message to the American people.
According to those who have read advanced copies, the new Bob Woodward book, Fear, cites Marine Corps Generals Jim Mattis and John Kelly, the current Secretary of Defense and Presidential Chief of Staff respectively, making harshly critical comments about President Trump’s competence and fitness for duty. Within hours, both men dismissed the comments as “fiction.”
Few in Washington or anyone who has read Bob Woodward’s journalism accept the denials or think Woodward is purveying “Fake News.” The man who broke the Watergate story and has investigated and written about eight presidents over half a century is a model of journalistic integrity.
Why would two thick-skinned, cagey old warhorse survivors like Kelly and Mattis engage in such childish “no I didn’t…yes you did” type doubletalk?
My sense, and I admit this could be more hope than conviction, is that the two men are signaling to the United States Congress and the American people that the President is wholly unfit for the job, just like Denton once told us in code that POWs were being tortured.
Woodward also chronicles former White House counsel, John Dowd, telling Robert Mueller that the President is incapable of NOT perjuring himself and begging him not to interview Trump in his Russia probe. Is this, too, an SOS for the nation? In a similar vein, Woodward recounts Trump’s former trade guru, Gary Cohn, allegedly pilfering a document from the President’s desk that he is convinced will hurt the nation’s economy if the President signs it. “Gotta protect the country,” Cohn reportedly says.
It is by now axiomatic to say that former Trump staffers, when released, look like Vietnam-era prisoners of war – badly beat-up.
Over a dozen senior Trump officials have been pummeled by their boss, kicked by the media, and had their careers irrevocably smeared by their association with this President. For them, there is no heroes’ welcome following their tenure in the Trump White House, as there was for McCain and Denton when they emerged from the crucible of the Hanoi Hilton. Perhaps a cable TV talking head contract; but no dignity, no quiet pride at service well performed. Nothing grandkids will one day study and admiringly ask “Really, grandma, you were there?” For many there are just lawyer’s fees and public ridicule.
But maybe, just maybe, these two storied Marines, men once universally thought to be beyond reproach in terms of moral rectitude and integrity, men who now pander like unctuous courtesans at Louis XIV’s “Sun King” Court during Trump’s televised cabinet meetings...maybe they are blinking “TORTURE” and telling the country’s political class to do something about it.
The real issue, however, is what will THEY do about it? They swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, not an individual, increasingly erratic President. Moreover, they are not shackled prisoners of war armed only with a will to resist; they are – for now -prisoners of their own consciences.