‘Dear Boss: I quit.’ What letters like Mattis’s can foretell.

No one saw the letter as anything but a stinging protest. “Old Marines never die, but they do resign after the President ignores their advice, betrays our allies, rewards our enemies, and puts the nation’s security at risk,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) wrote in a tweet, referencing Mattis’s storied career in the Marine Corps.

.. I’ve studied resignations for 28 years. I’ve written a book about them — the world viewed through the medium of the kiss-off, from classical times to the modern day. History is written as much in endings as beginnings. The pivotal changes can arrive not with “Eureka!” moments but with adamant refusals.

.. Yet the most effective leave-takings are composed over time and with military precision. These are made up of the words, distilled from private agonies, that we place on the public record. They must function as appeals to history — as, in a case like Mattis’s — or one good grenade.

.. The United States armed forces are home to a “go-down-fighting” resignation-letter subculture all its own. The military tradition of explosive, often cutting letters began in 1979 by Air Force Capt. Ron Keys, who served as a pilot in the Vietnam War. His resignation, tendered to Gen. Wilbur Creech, contained legendary and often-imitated lines: “The General looked us in the eye and said, in effect, ‘Gentlemen, either I’m very stupid or I’m lying to you’” and “All those Masters and professional military educators and not a leadership trait in sight!”
.. Keys later said he hadn’t intended to send the letter that began “Dear Boss, Well, I quit.” He’d written it out of frustration late one night and mailed it by accident. Nobody bought that, least of all Creech. But the general did invite Keys to a meeting to elaborate. Keys’s recommendations were heard, his resignation rescinded. By the time he retired in 2007, he was Gen. Ronald Keys, commander of Air Combat Command. But it was the frazzled, almost comedic howl of rage that was Keys’s resignation, rather than the officer’s career, that was most widely remembered. Passed around and published, it quickly formed the template for what became known as the “Dear Boss” letter — Air Force slang for the frustrated officer’s resignation as unrestrained truth attack.
.. Planned, polished and executed for maximum effect, Dear Boss letters are ambushes by nature. The most famous — before Mattis’s on Thursday — was that of the highly decorated Army Col. Millard A. Peck, who resigned in 1991 as head of the Pentagon intelligence unit assigned to search and account for missing-in-action servicemen in Vietnam. Over four pages of complaints that would doubtlessly ring bells with Mattis, Peck wrote of being “painfully aware … that I was not really in charge of my own office, but was merely a figurehead or whipping boy for a larger and totally Machiavellian group of characters.” His department, he said, was nothing but “a ‘toxic waste dump’ designed to bury the whole mess out of sight and mind in a facility with limited access to public scrutiny.”

In a country still ambivalent about remembering Vietnam and haunted by the possibility of prisoners of war as well as those missing in action, the effect was electric. Within weeks, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opened a public hearing. Peck ended up overseeing administrative services for military ceremonies. He had taken the hit, but he’d got the result he wanted: a national public reckoning with the way the military looked after its own.

The Lesser Part of Valor

You wouldn’t say that Preston Brooks sucker-punched Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber in 1856—but only because he used a cane. Brooks, a South Carolina congressman, began bludgeoning Sumner, the anti-slavery Massachusetts senator, while Sumner wasn’t looking, and beat him unconscious as Sumner was still bent under his desk trying to stand up.

.. Brooks and his supporters in the South saw the incident as an act of great valor, as the historian Manisha Sinha writes. Brooks bragged that “for the first five or six licks he offered to make fight but I plied him so rapidly that he did not touch me. Towards the last he bellowed like a calf.” The pro-slavery Richmond Enquirer wrote that it considered the act “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequence.” Other “southern defenders of Brooks,” Sinha writes, praised Brooks for his “manly spirit” and mocked Sumner for his “unmanly submission.” It would have been manlier for the unarmed Sumner not to have been ambushed.

 .. Sumner gave a speech accusing Butler of having chosen “the harlot, slavery,” as his “mistress.” Brooks’s defense of Southern honor was to ambush an unarmed man reaching under his desk. As Sinha writes, Brooks later said that attacking Sumner with a cane, rather than challenging him to a duel, was an attempt to humiliate Sumner for his abolitionism by treating him like a slave.
.. Northern papers rightly saw Brooks’s act of violence against Sumner as an attack on free speech
.. Despite Brooks’s public bravado, many of his contemporaries understood that what he had done was an act of cowardice.
.. Anson Burlingame, a representative from Massachusetts, denounced Brooks on the House floor.
.. The Times reported at the time that the proprietor of the shooting gallery “had witnessed, in his time, some accurate shooting, but nothing that equaled this.”
.. Brooks’s headstone would later say that heaven itself never opened its arms to a “manlier spirit.”
.. The antebellum South was a society built on the violent exploitation of defenseless people; it is in no sense strange or odd that slaveholders would see no incompatibility between their concept of freedom and valor, and ambushing and caning a man who said something that hurt their feelings.
.. Gianforte attacked a man professionally obligated not to fight back. He initially accused Jacobs of being the aggressor and justified the assault by describing him as a “liberal reporter.” He hid from reporters all through election day, and as Brian Beutler points out, apologized only after he had won the seat.
.. Physically attacking journalists for asking questions is cowardly. Every single person who defends it is engaging in an act of cowardice. The notion that Gianforte was merely channeling the rugged frontier culture of Western mountain men when he attacked someone who asked him a question is laughable and patronizing.
.. It is not 1856, but these are the politics of a false valor forged by fear. It is the undercurrent of a politics that defends grown men who stalk black teenagers in the night and then gun them down when they raise their hands in their own defense; it is the politics that rationalizes Ohio police shooting a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun without so much as a chance to surrender; it is the politics of mass deportation and Muslim bans and Blue Lives Matter bills. It is the political logic of frightened people who need to tell themselves they are brave. This is not valor; it is the celebration of violence against those who cannot respond in kind.
.. That logic is properly realized in the avatar of a president who mocks those who served and suffered while having avoided service himself; who brags about sexual assault behind closed doors and threatens to silence the women who say he assaulted them; who ridicules disabled people then denies doing so; who calls the press the “enemy of the people” when reporters write stories that upset him; who attacks religious fundamentalism from the safety of a podium in this country and then genuflects before its most powerful representatives abroad. Brooks is long dead, but the heirs to his peculiar notion of bravery govern America still.

The Bow-Tied Bard of Populism

Tucker Carlson’s latest reinvention is guided by a simple principle—a staunch aversion to whatever his right-minded neighbors believe.

“I’m so pathetically eager for people to love D.C.,” he admits. “It’s so sad. It’s like I work for the chamber of commerce or something.”

If this boosterism seems out of character for a primetime populist like Carlson, he doesn’t seem to mind the dissonance. He speaks glowingly of his Northwest Washington neighborhood, a tony enclave of liberal affluence where, he tells me, he is surrounded by diplomats, lawyers, world bankers, and well-paid media types. They are reliably “wonderful”; unfailingly “nice”; “some of my favorite people in the world.” If you’ve watched Carlson on TV lately, you know they are also wrong about virtually everything.

.. “Look, it’s really simple,” Carlson says. “The SAT 50 years ago pulled a lot of smart people out of every little town in America and funneled them into a small number of elite institutions, where they married each other, had kids, and moved to an even smaller number of elite neighborhoods. We created the most effective meritocracy ever.”

“But the problem with the meritocracy,” he continues, is that it “leeches all the empathy out of your society … The second you think that all your good fortune is a product of your virtue, you become highly judgmental, lacking empathy, totally without self-awareness, arrogant, stupid—I mean all the stuff that our ruling class is.”

.. Carlson’s true talent is not for political philosophizing, it’s for televised partisan combat. His go-to weapons—the smirky sarcasm, the barbed comebacks, the vicious politeness—seem uniquely designed to drive his sparring partners nuts, frequently making for terrific television. Indeed, if cable news is ultimately theater, Carlson’s nightly performance is at once provocative, maddening, cringe-inducing, and compulsively watchable. Already, in its few short months in primetime, Tucker Carlson Tonight has created more viral moments than it had any right to do.

.. Though he has earned a reputation among his media antagonists for being an ambush artist—luring guests onto his show under false pretenses and then humiliating them with “gotcha” questions—Carlson says he’s always upfront while booking interviewees, and strives to avoid mean-spiritedness.

.. When I ask him why he was so infuriated by Duca, he thinks about it for a moment.

Finally, he answers, “It was the unreasonableness … It’s this assumption—and it’s held by a lot of people I live around—that you’re on God’s side, everyone else is an infidel, and by calling them names you’re doing the Lord’s work. I just don’t think that’s admirable, and I’m not impressed by that.”

.. the essence of Carlson’s case against the educated elites and well-heeled technocrats that comprise America’s ruling class (not to mention his neighborhood). They are

  • too certain of their own righteousness,
  • too dismissive of dissenters,
  • too unwilling to entertain new ideas.

.. When Carlson first joined primetime last year, he assigned his show a mission statement: “The sworn enemy of lying, pomposity, smugness, and groupthink.”

.. united in their hatred of a common enemy, the smug elites who Carlson rails against every night. And while he may have spent his life happily living among them, he’s clearly demonstrated he has no qualms about taking them on.