WASHINGTON – If there’s any redeeming news this week, it’s that no one will ever forget La David Johnson’s name.
Johnson, of course, was one of the four U.S. soldiers recently killed in Niger. Apparently his name seemed to slip President Trump’s mind when he called Johnson’s widow to offer his condolences. According to Myeshia Johnson, Trump initially referred to her husband only in the third-person “he.”
“He knew what he signed up for,” the president reportedly said.
A wide-ranging debate ensued about who said what during the call, involving several players who contradicted each other. Among them, Trump’s chief of staff, retired Gen. John Kelly, who inexcusably referred to Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., who listened to the call, as noisy “empty barrels.”
As things devolved, the president characteristically dug in his heels, denying both the momentary name lapse as well as the strange salve he attempted to apply to Myeshia Johnson’s broken heart.
“He made me cry,” she recounted on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
She may well have cried no matter what the president said, as anyone familiar with grief well knows.
But this is clearly not the point, which is that the commander in chief should know the name of the deceased soldier when he calls the family to express condolences. Surely, Trump is familiar with the cheat sheet. Indeed, when he finally got around to saying Johnson’s name, he told Myeshia Johnson that he knew her husband’s name because he had his service papers right there in front of him.
Would that he had not held himself so long in suspense.
Doubtless, many will think this much ado. Trump, after all, did finally refer to Johnson by name. Surely, no one at this point expects artfulness – or authentic empathy – from this president.
To be fair, there are a number of reasons the president might have stumbled at first. One, he’s a busy man and someone perhaps shoved a paper under his nose and said, “You must call this lady.” Trump, you'll recall, bragged last week that he had called “virtually” all the Gold Star families, which wasn’t so.
Kelly, meanwhile, contradicted his boss about the content of the conversation, saying that, in fact, he had suggested the approach Trump used. Kelly said he found the same sentiment – “he knew what he was getting into” – comforting when his own Marine son was killed in Afghanistan seven years ago. Perceptions undoubtedly differ among young widows and 67-year-old retired generals.
Another possible explanation for Trump’s fumbling is that La David is not the most common of names. Trump may have feared mispronouncing it. Or maybe he, like many whose scalps betray a touch of taupe, simply lost his place and needed to fill space until he could find it.
Trump could have put a quick end to Myeshia Johnson’s anger were he the sort to apologize. Whatever the reason for his lack of grace, narcissism having been exhausted as an explanation, one is reminded that names are enormously important.
If names weren’t important, we wouldn’t spend so much time agonizing over what to name our children. Getting names right is also the journalist’s eternal mandate. Once upon a time, a reporter could lose her job for misspelling the deceased’s name in an obituary. The operative principle was that most people get their name in the paper just twice in their lives – when they’re born and when they die. Get it right.
There’s a reason the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is so effective as a monument. All 58,000 men who were killed or went missing are listed, made profoundly real and emotionally staggering by their names. For the same reason, each 9/11 anniversary, the names of the victims are read aloud. We hear them; we remember them; we honor them.
Names are recognition. Using them properly conveys respect. Remembering conveys that one is important. This is why Chinese artist Ai Weiwei created an exhibit that included a recording of the spoken names of more than 5,000 children who died in a 2008 earthquake. When the government tried to suppress the number of those killed, Ai drafted citizens and Twitter followers to investigate and collect the names. He printed them all in Chinese on white paper, which, during a 2012 installation, filled an entire wall of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.
Names – properly printed, etched, blogged, retweeted or spoken – humanize the voiceless and show respect for the living, as well as the dead. “What’s in a name?” asked Shakespeare. Sometimes, everything.
Rest in peace, Sgt. La David Johnson. We won’t forget you.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.