John Kelly: On Respect and the Unlikely Compromise

Kelly compromise
Written by Tom Ewing

In explaining the civil war, White House chief of staff Gen. Kelly unwittingly explained why some compromises just aren’t possible. BY TOM EWING

aNewDomain  – Genuine compromise can become impossible. That’s the message White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly sent in his explanation of the origins of the Civil War today. 

Kelly perhaps was channeling the ghost of historian Shelby Foote, who featured prominently in Ken Burns’ nine-episode series on the Civil War.

“It was because we failed to do the thing we really have a genius for, which is compromise,” Foote said in one episode. “Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromise. Our whole government’s founded on it. And, it failed.”

Kelly put a slightly different twist on Foote’s observation, saying:

Note that Kelly was speaking in the context of the present day Civil War monuments controversy, however.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has shown that most Civil War monuments were erected not contemporaneous to the Civil War but generations later. Generally the erection of such monuments correspondsto times when African Americans were demanding equal treatment under the law.

What does compromise even mean?

So ask yourself: What does compromise even mean if the monuments were built to commemorate a particular battle but were instead erected to humiliate and frighten African Americans?

Given that the roots of compromise lie in mutual respect, you can see why that’s not possible here.

Regardless of whether Kelly understands this, his comments will nonetheless play well with the Trump base.

For what it’s worth, I have previously suggested a refocusing of Civil War monuments from white overlords to slaves

This strikes me as something akin to a compromise, likely a compromise that plays well with no side.

In the Civil War, Foote made a number of astute observations, including one that the Civil War defined America. This seems to be as true now as when he said it nearly 30 years ago:

So, in explaining compromise, Gen. Kelly essentially showed how compromise can sometimes become a meaningless concept.

Comedian John Oliver recently discussed the Civil War monuments issue in a segment of his This Week Tonight program, which examined the Southern Poverty Law Center report at length:

For aNewDomain, I’m Tom Ewing.

Credits: 54th Massachusetts, public domain, Library of Congress.