General Mattis’s Finest Hour

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That James Mattis is a tough man, we have no doubt. He is, after all, a Marine. He’s been decorated for the kind of valor it’s impossible to alloy. The question is whether he’ll prove tough enough to withstand the pressure to jump into the 2020 election campaign not as a candidate but as a critic of the commander in chief he served as secretary of defense. It seems the pressure is mounting with every passing day.

This is owing to the general’s new book, “Call Sign Chaos.” It’s out today from Random House. The book is about learning to lead. It’s a riveting read, in our view. Yet the general stops short of crabbing about the president he served and on whom he finally quit. As near as we can count, it mentions President Trump but four times — in the prologue, which offers a brief description of his job interview for secretary.

Such reticence is driving our best newspapermen crazy. The editor of the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, traveled all the way to the state of Washington for one of his famous scoop-interviews. He went for a walk with the general along the Columbia River. They talked about fishing, command-and-feedback loops, the fragility of the American experiment, even Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the famed stoic.

About President Trump, though, zilch. On the question about which Mr. Goldberg wanted to hear — “Is Donald Trump fit for command?” — the general clammed up tighter than one of the Columbia’s notorious mollusks. Mr. Goldberg himself found it “exasperating.” The general wouldn’t budge. “There is a period in which I owe my silence,” the general said, though he added: “It’s not eternal.”

This didn’t sit well at USA Today. It issued an editorial noting that Mr. Goldberg reported that his sources suggested General Mattis found Mr. Trump “of limited cognitive ability, and of generally dubious character.” The general, it groused, “has an obligation to tell American voters about the Oval Office occupant.” And to do so “before the nation decides on four more years of presidential leadership.”

This morning, David Brooks of the New York Times joins in. He sees General Mattis as “actually the exact opposite” of President Trump. “Like Goldberg,” Mr. Brooks writes, “I think it would be proper for Mattis to end his silence about Trump before the next election. Voters need his firsthand perspective to make a judgment about the fitness and character of the commander in chief.”

Our own view is that General Mattis is onto something. The best part of Mr. Goldberg’s interview with him was when the general asked him whether he knew the French concept of “devoir de réserve.” Mr. Goldberg replied (understandably for a newspaperman) that he did not. “The duty of silence,” the general explained. “If you leave an administration, you owe some silence.”

“When you leave an administration over clear policy differences,” General Mattis added, “you need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country. They still have the responsibility of protecting this great big experiment of ours. I know the malevolence some people feel for this country, and we have to give the people who are protecting us some time to carry out their duties . . . .”

Mr. Goldberg tried to hit the general with the First Amendment, but it bounced off. “Don’t you have a duty to warn the country if it is endangered by its leader?” Mr. Goldberg pressed on. “I didn’t cook up a convenient tradition here,” General Mattis said. “You don’t endanger the country by attacking the elected commander in chief.” Even when one “may not like a commander in chief one fricking bit.”

We were critical of General Mattis when he quit as war secretary — particularly his letter telling the President that he was resigning “because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.” The general just didn’t seem to get the constitutional concept that presidents don’t have “rights.” They have powers and duties.

It may be, after all, that Mr. Trump didn’t want a yes-man — a secretary whose views were aligned with his. Maybe he wanted someone to challenge him. In any event, it’s reassuring to read, in this dangerous moment, that from his redoubt along the Columbia River the general is trying to protect the President. General Mattis has had a lot of fine hours, but this could be his finest.


Image: The decorations of General Mattis. Via Wikipedia.

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