I don’t really know what determines which Presidential election cycles will have dueling gold star parents and which won’t. I don’t recall that any were placed on either convention stage in positions of prominence in either 2012 or 2008 in spite of the fact that we had combat action ongoing in two theaters. In 2004, of course, we were subjected to Cindy Sheehan, and in 2016, we have Pat Smith and the Khans.
There’s something vaguely detestable in the whole charade. Democrats slam Trump for not paying enough respect to the Khans, Republicans slam Hillary and the media for not paying enough respect to Pat Smith. It all raises the question, how should candidates respond to gold star families who criticize them or blame them for their children’s death?
One unfortunate reality that gets overlooked in much of the ink that has been spilled about the comparative treatment received by Pat Smith and the Khans is the extent to which media savviness and performance value plays a huge rule in how both the media and candidates react to their stories. Perhaps partially because of her overwhelming grief, Pat Smith’s performance at the Republican convention was, for many people, difficult to watch. Many people are uncomfortable with such raw displays of emotion and/or crying from people who are – to them – almost total strangers.
On the other hand, Khizr Khan’s stentorian denunciation of Trump – although not delivered with the eloquence of a Reagan or a Zell Miller or a Rubio – was mesmerizing to watch. With Pat Smith, you felt almost compelled to politely avert your eyes from her grief, Khan’s barely contained righteous indignation made you feel compelled to keep watching. In other words, the emotional impact of Smith’s performance felt more exploitative than did Khan’s, even though they were by definition equally exploitative. Sure, I don’t doubt that partisan bias on the part of the media has played into the disparate treatment they have received to some degree – the remaining portion, I think, is driven by natural emotional response.
Still, how should the candidates respond? I think the media treats the issue like candidates (Republican candidates in particular) have to not only respect the grief and sacrifice these families have made, but also have to accept the political or factual views about the causes of their children’s death. That’s of course not really how this works. There was no factual reason to treat Cindy Sheehan as having any more valuable or correct insight as to the validity of the Iraq War than anyone else, nor did she have any insight into what Bush knew or did not know when he ordered the invasion. Likewise, Pat Smith wasn’t there when her son was killed, and relies like the rest of us on a series of second hand accounts that have at this point probably been hopelessly infected with personal biases and the political ambitions of people who are involved. And Donald Trump is right that his position on Muslim immigration wasn’t articulated until long after Captain Khan’s death and would not have even applied to him.
So, George W. Bush did not have to accept Cindy Sheehan’s conclusion that he lied to start a war, and Hillary Clinton does not have to accept that Pat Smith is right when she blames Clinton personally for her son’s death, and Trump does not have to accept that the things Khan says about him are true or accurate.
All of that having been said, basic human decency demands that those who have lost loved ones in the service of a cause that is greater than themselves should know that their children’s death is honored and respected. If a parent or family member is drawing or espousing some erroneous conclusion based on their loved one’s death, they don’t have the absolute moral authority to say things are false and demand that they be accepted as true. However, it is fair to ask about the basic human empathy of a person who totally disregards that sacrifice and goes immediately on the personal offensive, as Trump did over the weekend.