Now that the controversy surrounding President Trump’s phone call to the widow of La David Johnson, one of four U.S. soldiers recently killed in Niger, has died down, we have an opportunity this Veterans Day to ask calmly, What might the president have said to Myeshia Johnson that would have comforted her?
In his phone call to Johnson, the president was representing the country, not just himself, and he was aware of that responsibility. The president did not call Mrs. Johnson hoping to start a political fight. To give him credit, he knew that he was out of his depth in making the phone call, and he turned for advice to his chief of staff, General John Kelly, himself a Gold Star father who lost his son in Afghanistan seven years ago.
Kelly, by his own admission, advised the president against calling the loved ones of dead soldiers. “Sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families,” Kelly has acknowledged saying. But when he learned the president was determined to call Mrs. Johnson, Kelly encouraged him to pass on a message that he found consoling to receive about his own son: “He knew what he was getting himself into, because he enlisted... he was where he wanted to be.”
It’s no surprise that the president’s attempt to provide comfort to Myeshia Johnson with that message failed. A widow and a general often don’t have the same response to wartime tragedy, but there is an alternative to Kelly’s words that the president could have turned to as a basis for his call. It is a letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1864 to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, after he was shown a statement from the War Department that said Mrs. Bixby, a shadowy figure living in Boston, had lost five sons in the Civil War.
The War Department got its facts wrong. Mrs. Bixby lost two sons in the Civil War, not five. But nothing in Lincoln’s letter, which John Hay, his secretary, is often given credit for writing, is changed by the misinformation he received about Mrs. Bixby’s tragedy. Mrs. Bixby in 1864, like Myeshia Johnson today, was a woman in need of solace.
Lincoln’s letter, just 139 words long, has touched readers ever since it was first published in the Boston Evening Transcript and Boston Evening Traveller in November 1864. The letter was quoted in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film, Saving Private Ryan, and it was quoted more recently by many of the president’s critics in the wake of the La David Johnson controversy.
But Lincoln’s letter deserves re-examination these days, not merely reprinting. What makes the letter so important is not simply the gentleness of Lincoln’s prose, but his ability to put himself in Mrs. Bixby’s shoes and simultaneously treat the deaths of her sons as more than her personal loss.
Lincoln begins his letter by noting how limited his efforts to provide comfort may be. As in his Gettysburg Address of a year earlier, in which he declared, “we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground,” Lincoln disavows any attempt to poeticize death.
“I know how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” Lincoln tells Mrs. Bixby. Lincoln will not, however, remain silent because he cannot be equal to the occasion. Lincoln wants Mrs. Bixby to know that the country owes her a debt of gratitude. “I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save,” he writes next.
For Lincoln, there remains, above all, the hope that a higher power may provide Mrs. Bixby relief in the future. “I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement,” he observes.
Then in his final words Lincoln assures Mrs. Bixby that her sons were soldiers in a noble cause. Their deaths were, he concludes, “a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.” Lincoln does not pretend to know what Mrs. Bixby’s sons were thinking at the moment they were killed, but he is sure that they were martyrs, not just victims in a bloody war.
Lincoln will go no further in offering Mrs. Bixby consolation. He will not suggest to her that her life will go back to being what it was. But Lincoln is no agnostic about his duty as president to reach out to Mrs. Bixby. Implicit in his letter is the idea that, for the family of any American soldier killed in battle, the words addressed to them by the president of the United States are bound to matter deeply. The burden is on the president to find the right words.