James Mattis, Abraham Lincoln, and Donald Trump

James Mattis, Abraham Lincoln, and Donald Trump

By: Robert Scot

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Quoting one person who is quoting another is always risky; either or both may be misquoted, and there must be some degree of trust in the integrity of those being quoted. In this case, the integrity of the individuals speaking – both key figures in Republican administrations – is beyond question. One is a recently retired General in the Marine Corps and well-respected Secretary of Defense; the other is President Abraham Lincoln.

The setting of the quote-within-a-quote was the annual Al Smith Dinner in New York, last Thursday. General Mattis was speaking in a retrospective and humorous vein, but humor with a particularly biting edge. Many will recall that his tenure as SECDEF ended rather abruptly, with Mattis resigning over a serious policy issue in which he publicly disagreed with President Trump. In question was the announcement, against SECDEF’s wishes, that we were abruptly reducing our support for Kurdish allies in northern Turkey, a reduction that has since continued to the point that even our own Senator Lindsey Graham, too often a Trump apologist, has condemned it.

At the Al Smith Dinner, Mattis quoted Lincoln from a speech given well before the latter became President, and he was talking about threats to our young nation. “It is not,” Lincoln said, “the foreign aggressor we must fear. It is corrosion from within. The rot, the viciousness, the lassitude, the ignorance. Anarchy is one potential consequence of all this. Another is the rise of an ambitious leader unfettered by conscience or precedent or decency who would make themselves supreme.”

“If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln continued, “we must, ourselves, be its author and finisher.”

Mattis continued in his own words, not Lincoln’s: “Today, in our own time, we need only look around us. For decades, our political conduct has been woeful and a source of national paralysis. We have supplanted trust and empathy with suspicion and contempt. We have scorched our opponents with language that precludes compromise. We have brushed aside the possibility that persons with whom we disagree might actually sometimes be right.” Although he did not say so explicitly, it was clear to the audience that General Mattis was speaking about the administration he had recently left, and specifically about President Donald Trump.

This column frequently disagrees with prominent Republicans, especially those serving or who have served in high places in the Trump administration. But here is a case where one such person “might actually sometimes be right.” I had the privilege of meeting General Mattis several years ago, when he and I both lived in California well before he was nationally prominent. James Mattis is indeed a man of honor, with whom I have not always agreed but have always respected. In this case, he most certainly is right.