It was Shakespearean. John McCain, like old John of Gaunt, might truly say, “O, but they say the tongues of dying men, Enforce attention like deep harmony: Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain.” John Kelly, like the grim warrior Talbot looking at his son’s corpse, might say “Triumphant death, smear’d with captivity; Young Talbot’s valour makes me smile at thee.” But the two could not be more different.
McCain’s was a speech of fire but also of light: “What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country.” As he, like Bush, denounced blood-and-soil nationalism, he told his listeners, “We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.” But staring into the shade as he is, McCain sang of others: “I’ve been inspired by the service of better patriots than me.” He celebrated America, “this wondrous land,” and if he paid tribute to those who fell, he spoke chiefly of an America that makes “the future better than the past.”
Kelly’s speech was delivered in a matter of fact tone, with moments of strain, as he described the care with which American soldiers treat their dead comrades, the impossibility of saying the right thing to bereaved parents, his solitary walk among the graves at Arlington. The occasion that led him to face the press was the imperative of pulling his bumbling boss out of a crisis of his own making—a condolence telephone call that left a young widow more upset than before, an angry representative criticizing the president, and more lies from the commander in chief about how his compassion had exceeded that of all of his predecessors.
But it turned into something different: a meditation on the difference between “the 1 percent” and the rest of us, between those who bear the sting of battle and burden of grief at young lives lost, and those who watch from the sidelines. He lashed out (inaccurately, as it turned out) at the politician who overheard the call because she was a friend of the family. He lurched into images of the past in which women were regarded as sacred. He pointedly discriminated among those asking questions, suggesting that only those who were Gold Star relatives or knew a stricken family had the right to ask him questions. Indeed, the White House press secretary later declared that it is improper for anyone to question a Marine four star—a statement worthy of Wilhelmine Germany at its worst.
To some extent it was all an exercise in projection, as the psychologists would say. The remark about women, from the chief of staff of a man who has celebrated groping them; the castigation of a politician for falsely taking credit for a building, from a man who works for a builder who does nothing but take credit that he does not deserve; the empty barrel that makes the most noise, when every day he works for a man without a moral center but with a loud mouth; the disgust at the treatment of bereaved fathers, referencing the Khan family but omitting candidate Trump’s sneer at them—in a way, the speech was all about Trump, and probably unconsciously so.