October 18th, 2017

On presidential calls to the families of dead servicemen and women

I hate when this becomes a topic for politics. I don’t care whether it involves a Republican or a Democratic president, or one I like or dislike. I believe that such interactions are private and should remain so. They are way too subject to distortion by people with a political agenda to hurt that president, whoever the president might be. I don’t think I ever criticized Obama for anything he did or didn’t do along these lines, and I’m not going to start now because the whole thing’s been dredged up by some back-and-forth accusations about Trump and by Trump.

Naturally, bereaved family members are often in a state of shock and grief and extreme sensitivity, which means they might react very emotionally to statements that are actually rather neutral, and/or mishear what the president is saying. It’s an intensely emotional exchange and those emotions are heightened by the situation itself.

That doesn’t mean that presidents never say insensitive things under the circumstances. Of course they can, and probably do. Any person might, although some have a particular gift for knowing the right thing to say. Plus, human beings—even when not in such a highly emotional state—often misremember what was said to them. How many people can reconstruct a conversation with accuracy? As a person who’s worked with couples and families—sometimes in settings in which the conversations are recorded, when it’s possible to check people’s accuracy in remembering—I can say with some assurance that most people are very very bad at it. After all, the game of “telephone” is based on a very real phenomenon.

So I’m not going to weigh in on the current brouhaha about what Trump said to a grieving widow. It’s very possible he said something highly insensitive. It’s very possible he did not.

I’m not sure when presidents began to be required to make personal calls to bereaved families, but back when casualties were much higher in wars such as World War II it couldn’t have been possible. There was just the dreaded and horrific telegram, featured in so many of the World War II movies I saw on TV in my youth.

[NOTE: There’s also Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Bixby.]

16 Responses to “On presidential calls to the families of dead servicemen and women”

  1. Griffin Says:

    I can’t take seriously anything that woman in the sequined cowboy hat says. What the hell is that all about?

  2. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    What a magnificent expression of condolence.

  3. Ann Says:

    Why does Trump never take the high road? Instead of engaging in a back-and-forth with that Congresswoman, he could have said something like he understands the grieving young widow is going through hell right now and his heart is with her, and left it at that.

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    Ann:

    Trump’s gut reaction (and strategic choice) to what he perceives as an insult is to hit back twice as hard. Sometimes it’s a good idea. Sometimes a bad one.

  5. Harry the Extremist Says:

    Id say largely a bad idea.

  6. DNW Says:

    One day, you will be able to point a StarTrek-ian device, something like that old Tricorder prop, and in a few moments know whether there is any point, under any set of circumstances whatsoever, in having anything at all to do with the subject in question.

    Because you will know in an instant just how emotional or unstable, or scheming, or duplicitous, the subject is, and thus be able in just a few moments to gain a rough idea of just how badly an interaction with that subject will crap and stink up your world.

    And then it will be outlawed if possible, by the selfsame hysterics who would naturally be avoided … because “inclusion”.

    Presidents should know better in general than to extend a hand to people who have not been vetted as stable and without an agenda.

    What he probably did was make a passing reference to the manly acceptance of risk by soldiers doing their duty, and how the consequences ache for the families even if one anticipates risk.

    But there is never, ever, anything one can say to a wailing narcissist who already hates you for what and who you are, that will suffice. Everything will be heard, or read with a lack of reciprocal charity, is not open prejudice.

  7. steve walsh Says:

    There is only one bad guy is this situation and it is the congress woman that made this condolence call public. In my view, PDT had no choice but to defend himself in the face of an obscenely made, scurrilous charge.

  8. Oldflyer Says:

    Strange isn’t it that President Trump, who reaches out to the family members of service members killed in action; an effort that has not been that common for Presidents, now becomes the offender, even in the eyes of some on this forum?

    To extend DNW’s comments, I have been in a position to observe, and even be the target for, the irrational reaction of someone who has just learned of the violent death of a loved one. Dealing with them under the circumstances is akin to walking into a mine field. Yet sometimes it must be done.

    I have mixed feelings about many of Trump’s public statements; but, I will certainly not fault him for responding strongly when attacked unjustly. I well remember many lamenting that G.W. Bush (and his father as well) did not respond vigorously to the incessant attacks. In fact, I am almost certain that I read those sentiments on this very forum. So, possibly, even likely, Trump errs in the other direction. Big deal.

    There is an excellent essay that is related to the topic of Trump’s persona by Prof Jean Yarbrough at https://www.city-journal.org/html/trump-and-tocqueville-15482.html

  9. parker Says:

    Oldfler,

    Give ’em hell. I too often question djt, but actually admire his in your face actions. He is a buffoon thin skinned, and a wild child. Perhaps that is why he won the electoraal college. I have for many decades been frustrated and seriously PO’ed being ruled by the metro areas and their faux marxist ideology. Trump tapped into that frustration. Not a supporter until election night, now willing to cut him a few miles of slack.

  10. Molly NH Says:

    Sheesh, dosent Trump have a personal secretary of sorts that will tell him we are placing a call to widow Mrs Johnson, I have her on line now.
    Something minor that could eliminate a lot of
    unjust criticism he received.

  11. J.J. Says:

    I appreciate Trump’s desire to honor our fallen. He is, after all, the C-in-C. It is unusual for a President to get involved. I know G. W. Bush personally met many families and visited Walter Reed often. Obama occasionally met families, but used them for photo ops and PR for himself. (Of course!) Those are meaningful gestures by the President, if he can work them into his schedule. But, IMO, not a necessary duty.

    Back in the day it was the CO of the unit, and the service – Navy/Army/Air Force/Marine – that wrote letters of condolences. The personal contact with the bereaved was done, and still is, by the Casualty Assistance Calls Officer. (CACO) The CACO did everything possible to assist the bereaved family – a very difficult job, but the least the nation can do for the next of kin.

    I have written letters of condolences to families of fellow Naval Aviators. A difficult job, but nothing compared to being a CACO. I served in an office where two of our officers were assigned as CACOs. It was a grueling assignment. I could see the way helping others with their grief and losses took a distinct toll. I was transferred out before my turn at CACO duty came up. I felt relief at not having to serve in that billet.

    It is prima facie evidence of the Dems extreme hatred for Trump that they would bring this up. This is a matter of privacy for the family and for the President – once hallowed ground. Now there is no low to which they won’t stoop if they think they can damage Trump. Though it might seem unseemly, I don’t blame Trump for defending himself. Unwarranted accusations that are unanswered become narratives that are used against the President or whoever is the target of the MSM and progressive cabal. An unchallenged lie repeated often enough quickly becomes a narrative.

  12. Yancey Ward Says:

    I think Trump hit back at the congresswoman because she did lie- I think that was why she was present for the call, just so she could tell that lie.

  13. Manju Says:

    The problem with the “hitting back” argument is that it could easily be extended to the Congresswoman.

    After all, Trump (rather strangely imo..since the question he was responding to was about why he hasn’t commented on the soldiers recently killed by ISIS in Niger, not why hasn’t he called their families) said President Obama and many other presidents didn’t make calls.

    Every excuse for Trump could apply to the Congresswoman. And every charge against Dems and the Congresswoman, is applicable to Trump.

  14. Lurch Says:

    My grandparents received one of those telegrams after my uncle Bert died in Japan. Only time my mother ever saw my grandfather cry. My grandmother blamed FDR for the rest of her life and could no longer play the piano, as that was a favorite family activity before Uncle Bert went off to war.

    Presidents get blamed even when they don’t make a call….

  15. Oldflyer Says:

    Manju, you clearly wrote before the press briefing today, when General Kelly so movingly explained that President Trump sought his counsel on how to speak to the families.

    The words that seem to have created such angst were very close to the ones that Gen Kelly provided; which happened to be very close to the ones that were spoken to the General when his own son was killed in Afghanistan.

    Trump did not shoot from the hip; he sought counsel from one who had personally experienced the pain; and then he tried to do right. The despicable Congress woman from Florida tried to turn his humanitarian outreach into something else for tawdry political purposes. Sadly, she epitomizes the small minded meaness of the Left today.

    I do not blame Trump for being outraged. The General, who knows too well the pain of loss, was outraged. Any reasonable person would be outraged.

  16. Manju Says:

    Oldflyer,

    My argument had nothing to do with what Trump said to the grieving widow.

    It had to do with him politicizing the “sacred call” (as John Kelly put it) during his Rose Garden conference, which occurred a day or so before the call in question.

    As you said, “Any reasonable person would be outraged”.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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