What’s in a Line? Only the Future of this Democracy

Much has already been written about the first presidential debate of 2016 and more certainly will be. Much has and will be made of stage persona, missed opportunities, an absentee moderator or one who got it just right, what part preparation should play in debates or for the most important job in the world, sniffs/grunts/or microphone malfunctions, and the baffling fact that Rosie O’Donnell and Howard Stern were name checked in such a forum, among other things. None of those will address the most important line of the night. It was delivered by Donald Trump, and it was the last thing said from the stage. “The answer is, if she wins, I will absolutely support her.” He doubled down in the spin room to an MSNBC reporter when asked if he would support the outcome of the election when he said, “yes, absolutely.”

It may not seem like much to say that after 43 peaceful transfers of power over the last 219 years the next one should be equally legitimate. Unfortunately, in an age when a candidate claims the primary system that ultimately nominated him was unfair; that the general election system set up by the Constitution he claims to love (all 10 articles, though there are only 7) is probably rigged against him; that voter fraud—people voting “ten times” or more—is rampant when all evidence says it is exceedingly rare; that “maybe the Second Amendment people” can stop the next president from nominating undesirables to the Supreme Court; and whose very rise to prominent politician began with an effort to delegitimize the first African American president in history; such an admission is very important indeed. “I will absolutely support her,” he said. We may come to see that line as the critical point in a very divisive campaign.

James Carville, long-time Democratic strategist, and Steve Schmidt, part of George W. Bush’s administration and former chief of Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, recently discussed the issue of calling into question the legitimacy of the electoral process. They called it “a fundamental attack on the country” (Carville) and “incredibly toxic for a democracy” (Schmidt). Carville said, “…if there’s such a thing as a sacred moment in a secular democracy [sic] is when the former president gets on the helicopter…to go back wherever they came from and a new president takes office.” Schmidt added, “The loser grants legitimacy to the winner through the concession speech and initiates [the peaceful transition of power].” These are two veterans of winning and losing campaigns from opposite sides of the political spectrum agreeing on a point that enables every democracy. That is, presidential elections are a fair contest of ideas where the victor becomes the legitimate leader of the entire country—including those who voted against them, those who did not vote at all, and, perhaps profoundly, even the person who was their opponent. Democracy only works when we agree on this foundational point.

So let’s also agree on this. Instead of thinking about joining a militia should Secretary Clinton win, as one Trump supporter attending the Gwinnett County Fair told NPR’s Steve Innskeep; instead of claiming, as many Democrats did after the 2000 election, that the election was taken, not won, and that the president was not their president; instead of setting about from the beginning, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did to President Obama, to block every initiative of the duly elected leader of the free world; let us pledge to do as Mr. Trump has and “absolutely support” the next president of the United States, whoever it may be, even as we continue the hard slog of representative government through passionate but civil dissent. It would have seemed hyperbolic to say so, though somehow it now is not, but our democracy depends on it.

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What Freedom Really Means

A couple of weeks ago, a 49ers quarterback kneeled during the playing of the national anthem. He said, “I am not going to…show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…” It set off a firestorm of comment without much useful debate. I recently saw a photo on the back of a vehicle of flag-draped caskets in the back of an Air Force cargo aircraft coming back from some far-away place. The caption asked if the “millionaire quarterback” might point out the skin colors of those inside so the “offensive flag could be removed.” Rarely have I felt such disdain. Yet, I embrace the right to exercise political speech on the back of a pickup truck. Alas, the Constitution does not protect us against offense. What it does protect are (here proudly claimed) “deplorable” displays on tailgates and quarterbacks’ decisions on posture during the playing of certain songs.

Not standing during the playing of the national anthem has somehow come to be seen as an act that dishonors veterans or those brave souls represented by a photo of flag-draped caskets. It does not. How could it? Anyone willing to contemplate it for a fraction of a second is immediately confronted with the extreme dissonance it requires to even consider the prospect.

In the run-up to war in Iraq a great ally cautioned the administration about taking military action. France’s diplomats and president were against it sensing what we all now know to be true, the case for war in Iraq as presented did not stand up to scrutiny. Incensed congressmen and women took to the absurd in renaming a common side dish in the capitol cafeteria to “freedom fries.” There was a sense of betrayal after what we had done for France in WWII. Well, here’s the thing about freedom; those who have it are free to exercise it. That, I say with incredulity that I even have to, is the whole point.

One can question Colin Kaepernick’s motives. One can question the premise of his action. One can even question whether how he and now others have framed their argument is a valid statement of concern. A glance at a Charlotte or Tulsa paper might illuminate such a quest, but let us be very clear here. One cannot claim to be a patriot and question his right to do as he pleases when the Star Spangled Banner is played.

Those lying at rest under the Stars and Stripes fought under the premise that the Constitution’s guarantees apply to all citizens. They actually fought not to secure the rights of those in their own country—a steady work in progress for over two centuries now in the oldest and most secure secular democracy in the world. They fought to secure similar rights for a people they hardly even knew in a land half a world away. The U.S. military has done so since it last truly fought an existential threat to secure the union in 1865.

We do not know the race, religion, creed, orientation, or any other descriptor of those who fell in battle in that anonymous photo on the back of a pickup. In a sense that is fitting, because such things are irrelevant in the white-hot cauldron of modern combat. In death, they are all equal under the banner of this nation. If there is one thing to draw from such a photo it is this: we should, each of us, be in life too. At the core, that is all Mr. Kaepernick is saying. In a country whose seminal founding document states “all men are created equal,” what could possibly be more noble—or patriotic—than that?

Citizens and Soldiers

Martin Dempsey, the retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently penned an article in Defense One titled “Keep Your Politics Private, My Fellow Generals and Admirals.” In it he is reacting to both the Republican and Democratic Parties’ use of retired general officers at their respective conventions to tout the qualities of the featured candidate and question the stability and capability of the other. Dempsey explains that our military is subservient to both the public it serves and those they choose to govern them. It is sacred for those of us who have served and ought to be sacred to every American who has watched in horror as militaries across the globe have intervened in and at times overthrown democratically elected governments. The retired general explains that the character of U.S. civil-military relations drives a necessarily apolitical military. This in turn results in the public’s resounding faith in those who serve and the trust elected officials have in the advice of military leaders. This advice is provided, as Dempsey says, “without political bias or personal agenda.” Under our system of government this is a moral and ethical imperative, and it is codified in law under Title 10 U.S.C. and in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

This sacred trust is why I always recoiled from answering questions about my stance on a given military intervention. It is why I counseled young officers to never let on about their political beliefs for the sake of their compliance with the law and for the impartiality they were bound to show toward their subordinates who may have believed differently. I and other commanders often discussed with military members the sharing of deeply held beliefs through social media. I am a retired senior officer. I fully comprehend and embrace the essence of what former general Dempsey is saying. But he is conflating active service and retired life, and there is where he is dead wrong.

Dempsey says, “Generals and admirals are generals and admirals for life.” I understand why some may wish this to be true, but it is simply not the case. There is no law or regulation that follows senior officers into retirement that governs the relationship to the public they once served and are now a part of. Retirement brings our biggest promotion, to that of “citizen.” While we served we swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” I ask, what changed after we retired? Shouldn’t every citizen wake and go to sleep with that thought, just as I did for the better part of 25 years and the now-Mr. Dempsey did for far longer? My retirement did not lessen my resolve or my responsibility to defend the republic; it simply changed the character of that service.

While actively serving, certain rights are curtailed to preserve the fragile structure of our civil-military relationship. As Dempsey says, the people choose and “we support.” Where he falters is in saying retired flag officers speaking out have given the candidate who will be elected this fall “…reason to question whether senior military leaders can be trusted to provide honest, non-partisan advise [sic]…” In reality it means nothing of the sort. The character of my service was never defined by the actions of others. Simply because former peers spoke out from a depth of experience few others know while acting in the citizen role they have surely earned, no one should call into question the ability of senior officers still wearing the cloth of their nation to perform their solemn duty. Once out of uniform the senior officer corps no longer bears the responsibility of shielding an unwitting public or its elected officials from their own misperceptions about the personal statements of those who are no longer law-bound to remain apolitical. In a democracy, it is the public’s responsibility to judge the intent, character, and quality of those desiring to enter the public discourse. As Dempsey would agree, it would be inappropriate for active military officers to judge the voters’ choice for president. It is equally inappropriate to assume those same voters cannot separate the responsibilities of a serving senior officer from the freedom of conscience and right of expression of one whose time in uniform has passed.

I am certain that the general officers who spoke at the conventions did so out of a deep sense of duty they still feel to a great nation. We should listen, and let their retired peers speak. We’re strong enough to judge them on their merit and understand the difference between their former responsibilities and current rights. If we are not, it would be well for them to question our worthiness of their service to a cause for which they dedicated the majority of their lives.