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Shawn Vestal: The jokes were great, General Mattis, but let’s get serious

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 22, 2019

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, center, delivers the keynote address during the 74th Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in New York. (Mary Altaffer / AP)
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, center, delivers the keynote address during the 74th Annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in New York. (Mary Altaffer / AP)

Good ones, general.

You’re proud to be the world’s most overrated general – the Meryl Streep of generals, as you put it at the recent Al Smith Dinner in New York. You earned your spurs on the battlefield, but Trump earned his in a letter from his doctor.

Top-notch zingers. Now maybe you can tiptoe more forcefully into the stuff that’s not so funny. Start with the betrayed Kurds and the return of ISIS. Move on to the betrayed Constitution.

Gen. Jim Mattis – honored son of Washington state, graduate of Central Washington University, former supposed voice of reason and decency in the White House, and recently declared “world’s most overrated general” by President Trump – is speaking in Spokane on Thursday night. The appearance by the former Secretary of Defense comes in the wake of a growing chorus of observers calling upon him to raise his voice and make a clearer case for his obvious concerns about the president he briefly served.

For the longest time, Mattis has resisted, arguing that it was honorable to keep his mouth shut.

“I don’t believe that if you leave the administration over a matter of policy … that you then get out and start talking in what you commonly call a kiss and tell now,” he said in September. “When the time is right to speak out about policy or strategy, I’ll speak out.”

And even as he has begun to speak a tiny bit more frankly, what’s emerged is the fact that he has some concerns, and he’s going to hint very strongly about them.

Might the time be now for a patriot to raise his voice? Right here in River City? His remarks last week at the Al Smith Dinner – a series of roast-like zingers that were truly, shockingly funny – makes one wonder why it would be appropriate to mock the president but inappropriate to speak up more clearly, directly and forcefully.

Mattis will be addressing the crowd Thursday, along with Chris Christie, at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner. The policy center is a conservative political organization that identifies itself as a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) educational organization under tax guidelines in order to keep its donors secret and avoid paying taxes.

In truth, though, the WPC is as nonpartisan as a Lincoln Day Dinner. That’s why it would be such an opportune moment for Mattis to be more forceful and clear, and less coy and comic, in his reservations about the president he served.

After all, it’s audiences like Thursday’s that would benefit most from hearing a ideological fellow-traveler offer clear, forceful, truthful talk inside the echo chamber – someone on the right who stops with the eye-rolling and faux exasperation that goes hand-in-hand with the widespread acquiescence to Trump on the right, and identifies this presidency plainly for the disaster it is.

Is that you, general?

Your jokes make it seem that it could be.

The call for Mattis to speak up more pointedly has been widespread in recent months, as the impeachment process rolls forward and each new day arrives with a new bloom of presidential corruption, spitefulness and ignorance. This month, Washington Post opinion editor James Downie wrote a column urging Mattis to open his mouth, headlined “Jim Mattis’ sad silence helps no one.”

In it, Downie notes what has become so apparent: Mattis keeps insinuating, but never quite saying, that he has serious problems with what happened, and what’s happening, in the White House.

Mattis has portrayed this reticence as honor. In the September conversation quoted above, Mattis bristled a bit at the suggestion that he owed the country a more frank assessment of the criticisms he’s but hinted at.

“We’ve got a president and a secretary of state and a secretary of defense trying to protect this great big experiment that you and I call America, and I’m not going to make their job more difficult by a former secretary of defense speaking from what I would call the cheap seats, not responsible for anything, speaking up about it,” he said.

It’s hard to square that sensibility with the jokes he told at the Al Smith Dinner. The jokes were good. They were on point. They seemed bound to infuriate the president.

They were, in their way, delightful.

“I’m not just an overrated general. I am the greatest, the world’s most overrated,” Mattis said, responding to an insult from the insulter-in-chief. “I’m honored to be considered that by Donald Trump, because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress. So I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals. And frankly, that sounds pretty good to me.”

Zing!

“I have earned my spurs on the battlefield,” he said. “Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor.”

Zoom!

Mattis said the only person in the military Trump doesn’t believe is overrated is Colonel Sanders.

Pow!

Funny stuff, general.

Now do the stuff that isn’t funny at all.