Politics, Top Stories

Kelly Sadler and a Loss of Perspective

Kelly Sadler, the Special Assistant to the President’s Office of Communication, has become the latest protagonist in our national ritual of excoriating individuals for inappropriate statements. As of this writing, the Trump administration still refuses to fire Ms. Sadler or apologize for her dismissal of Senator John McCain’s opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel because “he’s dying anyway.”

Sadler’s statement reminded me of anthropologist Ernest Becker’s observation that we are psychologically and emotionally built to deny our own mortality. The relatively younger and presumably healthier special assistant dismissed the ageing senator fighting terminal cancer, apparently oblivious to the fact that she too is dying. She found a position of relative power over McCain based on her temporary good health and wielded it against him. Her words provided her, if only for a split second, with an illusion of invulnerability.

Pointing out the psychological and evolutionary motives behind Kelly Sadler’s words is not just existential philosophizing. We all live in the shadow of death. Sadler might have been killed in a car accident the same day she made her remark and died before the Arizona senator. Alternatively, she might have dropped dead immediately after uttering her remark from an undiagnosed aneurysm or any other variety of the fatal disorders that can sneak up on us unannounced. In fact, from the perspective of eternity, Sadler and I and everyone reading these words are as close to death as John McCain. Even if McCain does expire before any of us, from the second he enters oblivion, time stops for him but the rest of us will soon follow him into the eternal void. This horrifying truth is one of the many dark realities of our animal nature that civilization attempts but fails to fully erase.

Kelly Sadler’s callous and cowardly statement deserves, at the very least, the silent condemnation that, according to reports, it elicited from its immediate audience. It certainly deserves media scrutiny when one public official dismisses another, particularly an esteemed politician like Senator John McCain, in such off-hand manner. Sadler certainly owed the Senator and his family an apology, which she delivered by contacting his daughter Meghan McCain.

However, I do not know why Kelly Sadler owes the country as a whole a public apology when the comment was not made in public. As distasteful as it was, the remark was directed at one individual as opposed to any immediately identifiable social group. Her words lacked compassion and respect, but they had a limited target. Her remark can’t reasonably be categorized as racist, sexist, ageist, or homophobic. And so, pitiless as it was, it cannot reasonably be construed as an assault on America’s social fabric. The number of famous long-serving national politicians with terminal brain cancer can be counted on a single finger.

It is true that Kelly Sadler’s remark was made during a meeting in the White House where she and other public employees were working at tax payers’ expense. It is also true that the meeting was held to strategize the successful appointment of a CIA director formerly complicit in torture, a move that will arguably further undermine the country’s international standing. That’s certainly a newsworthy aspect of this story. But if our nation’s media outlets of record are going to demand apologies for any and every inappropriate statement made during a private White House meeting by members of any and every administration, they will have time for precious little else.

Even our current administration, like the perennial broken clock, can be right or at least not completely wrong some of the time. There is something to be said for the defense of Kelly Sadler offered by the White House’s spokespeople, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Raj Shah. Individuals should be able to speak with a degree of freedom in meetings they consider to be off the public record. In a private environment where individuals feel free to share off-the-cuff ideas, terrible remarks like Sadler’s comment or Trump’s remark about “shithole countries” have a greater likelihood of arising, especially within the dubious company of the current White House staff. But what price are we willing to pay in missed creativity and ingenuity by stifling discussions during public sector or private enterprise staff meetings in our internet-enabled age of reflexive condemnation and outrage?

Sadler’s many critics claim that the lines Kelly Sadler and her boss have crossed are easy to identify and avoid. People, however, are not always good at finding balance and moderation. In social media debates that leak into the real world, the line between the appropriate and the inappropriate can become blurry. Comments that would have been innocuous or even radically progressive ten years ago—like New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon’s argument for legalizing marijuana and using the drug trade to raise “reparations” for minorities affected by the excesses of the drug war—now receive opprobrium. Today, apparently, using the term ‘reparation’ for anything besides a discussion of compensation for the descendants of U.S. slavery is strictly forbidden. Such lines are endlessly redrawn and speakers sometimes don’t get the relevant memo until after they’ve violated them. I worry more about the effect this has on everyday language and expression than I worry about Sadler’s thoughtless remark.

In light of the flexibility our ever-shifting norms and the disproportionate sternness and rigidity with which they are enforced, the mainstream media’s insistent focus on Kelly Sadler’s comment contributes to a stifling of public discourse with the ominous sense that our worst private moments can become fodder for public judgment. At the same time, coverage of consequential policy choices and world events that deserve serious attention and scrutiny are neglected in favor of empty sensation. At the current rate, MSNBC will soon be broadcasting a nightly special like those hosted by Ted Koppel during the Iran hostage crisis, in which large graphics and pseudo-portentous music announce “Day 145 of Kelly Sadler’s Non-Apology.”

Kelly Sadler’s remark certainly deserved and received some measure of opprobrium. But how long should the media focus on demanding an apology that never appears? Whether or not Sadler believes her statement merits a public apology, we know that her boss has decided it does not. Donald Trump sets the tone for this administration and, unfortunately, he is the President of the United States until further notice. Those who think that considerations of tone are what merit saturation coverage are confusing the petty with the truly important. At a time of global instability, we do not need such distractions. It would be worth recovering a sense of perspective.

 

Carlos Hiraldo is a poet and a Professor of English at the City University of New York. 

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24 Comments

  1. Jack B. Nimble says

    Ummmm…… I think Hiraldo is missing the point here.

    “The so-called leaks coming out of the White House are a massive over exaggeration put out by the Fake News Media in order to make us look as bad as possible. With that being said, leakers are traitors and cowards, and we will find out who they are!” the president tweeted on Monday.

    Source – https://www.thedailybeast.com/trump-misses-hope-hicks-as-traitors-keep-leaking

    If Trump is willing to call HIS OWN STAFF traitors to the country, do you think that he will refrain from smearing and even prosecuting his critics as traitors and criminals, if his back gets truly pushed against the wall?

    Look, every White House in memory has leaked to the press–usually because some staffer is trying to resolve internal power or policy struggles by going public, but off the record. Your guess is as good as mine as to why this administration is chock-full of leakers and back-stabbers. It may be relevant that, even when a private citizen, Trump often leaked his own business details to the press, using pseudonyms like ‘Barron’ and ‘Miller.’

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudonyms_of_Donald_Trump

    • Joseph says

      I don’t get your point, the issue that the author is addressing is the effect potential leaks can have on the ability of officials to speak with clarity and vigor during private discussions. When communicating complex ideas during a brainstorming or strategy meeting one might speak imprecisely in a manner that would produce offencive thoughts or phrases. The point Kelly Sadler was making was probably that due to the impending death of Senator McCain his political importance is diminished. The author does not defend the remark, but does imply rightly that similar remarks are common during strategic discussions, and if everyone was held accountable for all of them developments of new ideas would be impossible.

      • Jack B. Nimble says

        The author didn’t provide any evidence that the media are obsessing over this story–no links, just opinion. Even if the media are over-reacting to Sadler, that is standard procedure for media in DC. Remember how the media went nuts over Wikileaks and the DNC email leaks, particularly those of John Podesta?

        We should also remember that Nixon’s Watergate mess started with a group of criminals he called the ‘plumbers’ who were hired to stop the [press] leaks. That hunt for internal leakers culminated in the break-in at the DNC headquarters in Washington. The plumbers were looking for a paper trail that would finally identify the leakers.

        Leaks to the press are a fact of life in DC. I don’t like or hate them. But I do worry that Trump’s approach to press leaks is starting to become as worrisome as Nixon’s.

        That is why I think that THIS is the bigger story. Also, people in politics should treat every email, every off-the-record remark, every phone call, etc. as though their worst critic was watching at their shoulder. Only way to stay safe……

      • Kurtis says

        Hi Joseph. I think that issue you highlight (“effect potential leaks can have on the ability of officials to speak with clarity and vigor during private discussions”), while likely true, is not actually the point the author is really addressing.

        His point is rather, I believe, that most people (including all of us here – with all our different perspectives and opinions) are waisting our energy and time commenting this kind of trivialities, and loosing perspective of what is more important.

        All of us can contribute much more by avoiding distraction, and focusing energy and time in topics and issues with higher priority.

    • Howard Bitterman says

      What’s really going on? I believe that Donald Trump personally orchestrated Kelly Sadler’s remark, her subsequent behavior and the White House response. I believe that circumstantial evidence strongly supports my belief although such evidence does not constitute proof.

      Consider the bad blood between Trump and Senator McCain. Trump during his campaign disparaged McCain’s war record by stating his preference for people who weren’t captured. Following the release of the Access Hollywood tape McCain withdrew his endorsement of Trump. Last year McCain gave a dramatic thumbs down to a repeal of Obamacare. In recent weeks associates of McCain have let it be known that Trump would not be welcome at his funeral.

      It is well known that Trump’s policy is that whenever slighted to hit back ten times as hard. It is extremely unlikely that he would pass on the public disclosure of John McCain’s funeral plans. Donald Trump has a long history of subterfuge and underhandedness. According to Wikipedia ‘he used pseudonyms during call-in interviews throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s’ (ex John Barron and John Miller). That is he pretended to be someone else in order to spread favorable publicity about himself and his businesses.

      Meghan McCain has publicly wondered why Kelly Sadler still has a job. There is no mystery in Ms Sadler’s continued employment if her remark was made at Trump’s direction. Let me be clear. I believe that Trump instructed Sadler to make the remark and ensured its leak in order to hurt Senator McCain.

      Why hasn’t Sadler issued a public apology as promised to Meghan McCain unless she is being muzzled by the White House? Why hasn’t the White House issued a public apology to Senator McCain? If you believe Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ excuse about not responding to leaks I know of a bridge in Brooklyn you can buy on the cheap.

      Donald Trump can prove me wrong by issuing a detailed statement addressing the questions I have raised in this article. However, since he is a notorious and egregious liar I would insist that any statement he makes be under oath and penalty of perjury.

      One more thing. Donald J Trump is the embodiment of evil. If you support Trump you are a bad, that is, an evil person. Don’t take my word for it. Ask Cindy and Meghan McCain.

      • Kurt says

        Re: “Donald Trump can prove me wrong by issuing a detailed statement addressing the questions I have raised in this article”

        Your conspiracy theory is obviously a big concern for the President. I’m sure he’ll get around to addressing it sometime in the next 6 years and 8 months of his administration . Just hold your breath until he cracks under the pressure.

        RE: “One more thing. Donald J Trump is the embodiment of evil. If you support Trump you are a bad, that is, an evil person.”

        He’s so evil I hear that he and his minions told a pack of lies and sent a plane load of illicit cash to a regime bent on terrorism and our destruction, all for no good reason but his own pathetic vanity.

        I also hear he was so evil that he used his justice department and the FBI to spy on the presidential candidate of the opposing party as part of a frame up job to overthrow a fair election. Talk about evil, right?

        Then there was that “if you like your doctor…” lie. What an evil bastard that Trump is.

        • Howard Bitterman says

          Like your Fuhrer you are a liar. Unlike him, you’re not very good at it.

        • Howard Bitterman says

          Sounds like someone filled your brain with excrement and forgot to flush.

          • Kurt says

            Hey, Thanks for stopping by and raising the level of discourse, Howard. Where are the lies you are referring to?

        • Howard Bitterman says

          1) According to Snopes your claim with respect to the plane of ‘illicit cash’ is false.
          2) There is no evidence that the FBI’s use of an informant was illegal or had a political purpose
          3) There is no evidence that President Obama had any with repect to the FBI informant.
          4) President Obama eventually acknowledged (and apologized!) that his statement regarding keep your doctor was false. Were his statements on this issue intentional lies? Perhaps. Bears defecate in the woods and politician lie. I do not deem Trump to be evil because he lies and lies notoriously and egregiously Trump is evil because his is a charlatan, a con man and a destructive demagogue. Trump is evil because while he claims to be pro life he is actually pro death and damnation.

  2. Keysis Tejeda says

    “In social media debates that leak into the real world, the line between the appropriate and the inappropriate can become blurry. Comments that would have been innocuous or even radically progressive ten years ago—like New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon’s argument for legalizing marijuana and using the drug trade to raise “reparations” for minorities affected by the excesses of the drug war—now receive opprobrium. Today, apparently, using the term ‘reparation’ for anything besides a discussion of compensation for the descendants of U.S. slavery is strictly forbidden. Such lines are endlessly redrawn and speakers sometimes don’t get the relevant memo until after they’ve violated them. I worry more about the effect this has on everyday language and expression than I worry about Sadler’s thoughtless remark.”

    People on social media become too easily outraged over the slightest of slights. However, with the advent of the Trump administration, it becomes easier to gain perspective on the moralistic and grandstanding impulse that passes for critical feedback. When the POTUS is a vulgarian in maximalist terms, he crowds out the space for calling out micro-aggressions.

  3. Katherine Feliz says

    I think that establishing a normative standard that upholds the right of women and other marginalized people to be treated with dignity and respect is a very reasonable progressive stance. Yet for some odd reason, men on the left—not Mr. Hiraldo, in this instance— ridicule other progressives who defend vulnerable populations from demeaning and dehumanizing language. Trump has sunk the country to a new low. But there has been a backlash against the gains of the Civil Rights Movement and Womens’ Rights Movement—from the left. I think the criticism of “everyday language” reacts to a fear of losing these past gains and regressing to a less civilized and liberal social order. I agree with Mr. Hiraldo but I worry that he doesn’t situate the broader context imbuing these ”everyday language and expression” dynamics with so much power and import —because we are so vulnerable to losing these social mores undergirded by values of anti-sexism, anti-racism and etc.

  4. Nicole says

    Excellent points. The US of A is going down the tubes.

  5. John says

    I’ve been hearing about how the USA is going down today the tubes for as long as I can remember. I’m 43

  6. asdf says

    The “shithole countries” was entirely truthful and sorely needed. Mass migration from shithole countries has made America worse. People have tried to shut it down for decades and it never happens. It takes someone boldly saying that these people have nothing to add to America to cut through the bullshit about being a nation of immigrants. Which immigrants, from where, matters a lot.

  7. What does “off-the-record” mean? Did Kelly Sadler believe she was speaking off-the-record?

    Excellent point by this author that we all are dying. In fact, that paves the way for another question, one no one is allowed to ask…If we are all dying, meaning John McCain is just another dying person, are we compelled to be respectful and circumspect when talking about McCain, whose recent remarks about Sarah Palin were cruel and hypocritical?

    • Miri MayBe Magic says

      This is a non-sequitur. If this was reasonable, critique of anyone’s behavior or speech would be inappropriate because we are all “dying anyway.” Critique of McCain’s remarks about Palin have nothing to do with his mortalitly, nor did his mortality prevent you from clearly stating your opinion.

  8. Kurt says

    The extrordinarily vile nature of John McCain as a person has taxed the everyman’s humanity the the breaking point.

    Yes, compassion for the terminally I’ll us in order. But his refusal to resign from a job he has been unable to perform for 6 months, while attempting to settle old scores from his deathbed, tells a person all they need to know about the man.

  9. Howard Bitterman says

    Perhaps we need a constitutional amendment mandating the placement of terminally ill legislators on icebergs. I guess your kind prefers gas.

  10. Kurtis says

    The author’s point being, I believe, that most people (including all of us here – with all our different perspectives and opinions) are waisting our energy and time commenting this kind of trivialities, and loosing perspective of what is more important.

    All of us can contribute much more by avoiding distraction, and focusing energy and time in topics and issues with higher priority.

  11. Howard Bitterman says

    I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up businessman Trump’s refusal to rent to African-Americans. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up Donald Trump’s endorsement of the death penalty for individuals like the Central Park Five and his refusal to acknowledge their exoneration. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring the con job Trump perpetrated on the students of Trump University and the racist remarks he made about Judge Gonzalo Curiel who presided over a subsequent civil suit. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up Trump’s false and malicious questioning of Barach Obama’s citizenship. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up Trump’s mocking of a disabled New York Times reporter and his subsequent lies about the matter. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up Donald Trump’s disparagement of John McCain’s military service. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up Trump’s characterization of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up the disrespect Donald Trump showed to the parents of a military officer killed in action. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up President Trump’s pardoning of Joe Arpaio thereby endorsing Arpaio’s contempt of court. So what, prey tell, is worthy of our attention?

  12. Howard Bitterman says

    (To correct typos)
    I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up businessman Trump’s refusal to rent to African-Americans. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up Donald Trump’s endorsement of the death penalty for individuals like the Central Park Five and his refusal to acknowledge their exoneration. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up the con job Trump perpetrated on the students of Trump University and the racist remarks he made about Judge Gonzalo Curiel who presided over a subsequent civil suit. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up Trump’s false and malicious questioning of Barack Obama’s citizenship. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up Trump’s mocking of a disabled New York Times reporter and his subsequent lies about the matter. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up Donald Trump’s disparagement of John McCain’s military service. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up Trump’s characterization of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up the disrespect Donald Trump showed to the parents of a military officer killed in action. I suppose it’s just another triviality for me to bring up President Trump’s pardoning of Joe Arpaio thereby endorsing Arpaio’s contempt of court. So what, pray tell, is worthy of our attention?

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