The more White House chief of staff John Kelly gives us glimpses of his personal worldview, the harder it is to maintain the comforting fiction that he is the wise, sane “gray head” in the White House countering POTUS’s ignorance and malice. Peter Baker summed up this growing realization well last week:
For all of the talk of Mr. Kelly as a moderating force and the so-called grown-up in the room, it turns out that he harbors strong feelings on patriotism, national security and immigration that mirror the hard-line views of his outspoken boss. With his attack on a congresswoman who had criticized Mr. Trump’s condolence call to a slain soldier’s widow last week, Mr. Kelly showed that he was willing to escalate a politically distracting, racially charged public fight even with false assertions.
And in lamenting that the country no longer holds women, religion, military families or the dignity of life “sacred” the way it once did, Mr. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general whose son was killed in Afghanistan, waded deep into the culture wars in a way few chiefs of staff typically do.
And that was before Kelly unburdened himself of some depressingly retrograde views on a bit of U.S. history that is, unfortunately, still highly relevant today:
The White House chief of staff called [Robert E.] Lee “an honorable man” who chose duty to his state over loyalty to a federal government.
“It was always loyalty to state first back in those days,” Kelly said. “Now, it’s different today.”
He continued: “But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War. And men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had to make their stand,” Kelly added, not making any mention of slavery.
This familiar rap was in response to a question about monuments to slave-owners, the very subject that got Kelly’s boss into hot water in August. I call it familiar for a personal reason: Growing up as a white kid in the Jim Crow South, this is very much what I was taught, both in school and by a Confederacy-saturated culture. No high-school football game was complete without a rebel-yell punctuated performance of “Dixie,” with Confederate battle flags flying. We were told that the War Between the States (as it was then called throughout the region) was a battle of moral equals (more or less — though the chivalrous, aristocratic Confederates were less crude and more stylish than the Yankees, as anyone comparing the “incomparable” Lee to the shabby Grant could attest), who fell into war because some Southern hotheads were provoked by the Republican victory of 1860, which reflected the emergence of an uncompromising fanaticism in the North. Fortunately, with the “failure” of Reconstruction, the “people of good faith” on both sides were able to reconcile, and peace throughout the land was restored.
I am not sure where the Boston-bred Kelly learned this moonlight-and-magnolias version of Civil War history; I should hope he didn’t learn it during his long military career, since one would hope that Confederate leaders are principally remembered by the military as traitors. As the historians who commented on Kelly’s interview generally agreed, it’s long been discredited:
“What’s so strange about this statement is how closely it tracks or resembles the view of the Civil War that the South had finally got the nation to embrace by the early 20th century,” [Columbia University professor Stephanie McCurry] said. “It’s the Jim Crow version of the causes of the Civil War. I mean, it tracks all of the major talking points of this pro-Confederate view of the Civil War.”
Kelly’s miseducation might not matter that much were it not for the fact that the Confederate legacy has become a live political issue — for example, as the subject of intensive messaging by the Republican Party’s candidate for governor of Virginia. How is Kelly supposed to curb his boss’s claim that “the history and culture of our great country [are] being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” when local communities are also trying to remove vestiges of neo-Confederate propaganda? Kelly feels the same way Trump does, evidently. Monuments to Lee, like women, were once sacred, but no more. As Trump would put it: sad.