Panetta On Presidents' Difficult Task Of Reaching Out After U.S. Military Deaths
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
As members of Congress are raising questions about what exactly happened in Niger, the White House is dealing with fallout over how the president expressed his condolences to the widow of one of the fallen soldiers. Yesterday, in an effort to quiet the president's critics, White House chief of staff and retired four-star Marine Corps General John Kelly stepped forward in the White House Briefing Room.
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JOHN KELLY: Most Americans don't know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines or Coast Guardsmen in combat.
M. KELLY: John Kelly does. His son, Robert Kelly, also a Marine, was killed in Afghanistan nearly seven years ago. Yesterday, Kelly defended President Trump's calls to families of the soldiers killed in Niger.
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J. KELLY: If you elect to call a family like this, it is about the most difficult thing you could imagine. There's no perfect way to make that phone call.
M. KELLY: Let's bring in the voice of Leon Panetta. He is himself a former White House chief of staff and former defense secretary. Mr. Secretary, good to speak with you again.
LEON PANETTA: Nice to be with you.
M. KELLY: You have had to make these calls that we just heard General Kelly describing, so I'm guessing you can relate when he says there is no perfect way to do it.
PANETTA: Well, there's no question about that. John Kelly understands that as a Marine and someone who lost some of his own soldiers and understands what that means and then in particular because the loss of his own son. There really is no blueprint here for how you do this because it is a tough conversation.
I mean, even just writing notes to the family is tough because you want to relate to them. You want to relate to the loss of their son or daughter and what that individual was about and try to find the right words so that you can provide some comfort. And frankly, it's one of the toughest assignments that I think a president or, for that matter, secretary of defense or anyone who's making that call has to face.
M. KELLY: Walk us through historically how presidents have handled this in past. Kelly said President Obama did not call him after his own son was killed, but he - but General Kelly said, look; that's not a criticism, and that's not unusual.
PANETTA: I think that's right. Most presidents frankly write notes, write letters. There are some calls that are made in certain situations. But most of the time, this is something that presidents do in order to make sure that there are some words of compassion from the highest levels in this country. The one thing that that family really cares about is whether or not the sacrifice of their son or daughter is going to be remembered. The most comforting thing you can say to that family is that we will never forget the sacrifice that your son or daughter made. And they will be heroes forever. Those are the kinds of words that I think are the most effective in dealing with families.
M. KELLY: Have you been surprised at how politicized this has gotten?
PANETTA: Yeah, I think it's really regrettable that it has become politicized. And you know, I think the president has a bad habit when he's asked a question that he's uncomfortable with or can't quite come up with the right answer - usually tries to reach out for scapegoats. And (laughter) the first a scapegoat this president seems to always turn to is President Obama. And when he talked about him not making calls, that was a terrible mistake.
And what bothers me is that it detracts from the main focus here. And the main focus has to be on the brave and courageous individuals that are willing to go out there and fight and die for America and their families. You know, there is some comfort here for all of this dispute that maybe America again will take the time to remember that there are young men and women in uniform that are fighting and dying for this country. That's something sometimes I think we tend to forget.
M. KELLY: Which is a point General Kelly made yesterday - that this...
PANETTA: That's right.
M. KELLY: ...Is something the nation should keep sacred - is respect for the people doing these jobs. But I have to ask. Without wanting to politicize this any further than it has been already, General Kelly, even as he made those comments, also then criticized Congresswoman Wilson, who chaired the nature of the conversation between the president and this grieving widow. General Kelly described her as an empty barrel making noise. So did he then further politicize this?
PANETTA: Well, that's (laughter) - that is a problem that, you know, I think...
M. KELLY: Sounds like a yes, you think he did.
PANETTA: Well, it is because, look; John is a Marine. He does have the experience of it. I think he really does speak from the heart. But he's also chief of staff to the president of the United States. And you know, as chief of staff, he was going out there frankly to do damage control. You know, when you try to do damage control, by the very nature of what you say, it's going to become politicized even more.
So I frankly hope that they drop it. I think (laughter) - the president, I understand, tweeted about this again this morning. He really ought to drop it and move on. I think the bigger issue for this president is whether or not he can deal with foreign policy issues that could create the kind of wars that will turn more widows into reality.
M. KELLY: Secretary Panetta, thank you.
PANETTA: Thank you.
M. KELLY: Leon Panetta, who over a long career in Washington has served both Republican and Democratic administrations as White House chief of staff, also CIA director and secretary of defense. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.