When Shakespeare’s King Lear demands that his daughters tell him how much they love him, Goneril and Regan comply with effusive, insincere declarations of devotion, their eyes on the territory Lear is dividing up among his three offspring. Cordelia, his youngest and most beloved, responds sincerely, “I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth.” She refuses to be manipulated into dishonest flattery. Of course Lear, a selfish, egotistical old man, furiously disinherits her on the spot.
I was reminded of that scene last night during the President’s address to the legislature. In a maudlin, hypocritical and dishonest rendition of the death of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, President Trump directed attention to Ms. Owens, the grieving widow who sat beside Ivanka Trump in the visitors’ section. Ms. Owens was obviously and understandably distraught as she struggled to maintain composure, to contain her tears. Of course most of the assemblage on both sides of the aisle rose to offer long sustained applause, while Trump, his thin-lipped smirk stretched smugly, pickerel-like, across his face, clapped and nodded. “Ryan is looking down right now, you know that?” he assured the widow, then quoted General Mattis saying, “‘Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemy.’” Then a stroke of rhetorical hyperbole: “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity.”
Immediately after the speech, some talking heads on PBS and CNN agreed sagely about the emotional power of the moment –the widow’s gallant attempt to stay strong, the dramatic sustained response of the audience. One or two suggested that Trump had exploited the death of the Navy seal, our “hero” of the moment; but most bought into the televised drama.
Today, as I read the news and scrolled through Facebook responses to the address, I note that several voices bitterly denounced the few legislators on the Democratic side who chose not to stand for the ovation. I am writing this because I know I would not have stood, would not have applauded. In no way am I seeking to trivialize or denigrate Ms. Owens grief, nor will I criticize or comment on her willingness to attend the event as the President’s guest. As background we have read about her father-in-law’s refusal to greet the president when Trump and his daughter went to pay respects to Owen’s body as it arrived at Dover Air Force Base. “I told them I didn’t want to make a scene about it, but my conscience wouldn’t let me talk to him,” Owens said. He asked that his son’s death not be used to hide the truth.
Ms. Owen’s grief is real and her struggle to maintain her dignity brave. Perhaps the wave of applause and the president’s words comforted her and validated the canard that her husband did not die in vain. Ryan Owen’s father’s grief and anger are no less valid, however, given what we know (or don’t know) about the success of the mission. People grieve in different ways, to which they are entitled.
I understand, however, those who did not stand. As I watched the televised display of enforced patriotic feeling and human sympathy, I was angry and embarrassed. Trump wielded Ms. Owens’s grieving presence as a cudgel to force a public reaction that validates his claims of a successful mission that justified an American hero’s death.
There was, of course, no mention of the nine children killed during the botched mission. American lives matter; the children were collateral damage. Trump insisted again that the raid secured valuable intelligence that will save many more lives; there are convincing reports to the contrary. The appalling truth is that Trump’s exploitation of Ms. Owens’ grief created a tsunami of sentiment that obfuscates rational critique. Perhaps those Democrats who refused to be manipulated into ringing applause realized that Trump was hearing approval for himself, his decision to approve the mission, and his pledges of safety for the American people. As he nodded and looked from side to side to survey who was applauding, that self-satisfied smirk widened. The most telling signal that Trump remains obsessed with the size of demonstrations of approval came as he bragged, as though he were citing crowd or poll numbers, “ And he’s [ Ryan Owens] very happy, because I think he just broke a record.” That remark is exploitation taken to its callous extreme: suggesting that record breaking applause can make a dead soldier and his grieving widow “happy.” To those who chose not to join the cast of Trump’s melodrama, I say they acted with personal integrity. Sometimes one cannot heave one’s heart up and out in response to an emotionally manipulative demand from an emotionally stunted and dishonest man, however elevated his status.