STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Three public figures in the past day have faced some of the most basic American questions - who we are, what we value, what we honor. Two former presidents stepped back onstage to address American politics, bigotry and nativism. And then there's the current president's chief of staff, who asked if anything in America is still held sacred. John Kelly described a phone call, President Trump's call to the widow of a fallen soldier. Kelly denounced a Democratic congresswoman for listening in to that call and also tried to explain what the president meant when he said he knew what he signed up for.
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JOHN KELLY: He knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There's no reason to enlist. He enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be - exactly where he wanted to be with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.
INSKEEP: Kelly appealed to reporters in the room to hold wartime sacrifice as sacred. That is the beginning of our discussion with Jonah Goldberg, who's here once again. He's from National Review.
JONAH GOLDBERG: Hey, Steve. It's great to be here.
INSKEEP: Let's start with the man at the podium. What gives him such authority on this topic?
GOLDBERG: Well, he's a decorated former Marine - or I guess you're always a Marine. And he's not only a Gold Star father - his son was killed in action...
GOLDBERG: ...But he's made these phone calls many, many, many times. And he sort of exudes this moral authority on these issues.
INSKEEP: Although it's strange in this case in that he is explaining a statement that, for all we know, the president made awkwardly on this phone call, but explaining what it meant, why it was a legitimate thing to try to say. But it's a statement that the president himself repeatedly has denied that he said.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. Look, we are used to a lot of these sorts of stories where Donald Trump steps on his own message, that he muddies the waters, he revives issues that everyone hopes were put to bed. This seems a whole new category of it. The White House Spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that this conversation didn't happen the way the congresswoman described, that Donald Trump did have proof. Then General Kelly comes out and basically confirms the story. If you actually look at the text of what he says...
GOLDBERG: ...He basically says that what the family said is true.
INSKEEP: And this is what it meant and what it should have meant.
GOLDBERG: And then he tried to put it in context. And the clear implication was that Donald Trump basically just fell flat when he was trying to express his condolences. But the message that he was giving was one that he had gotten from people like General Kelly. And so the whole episode, I think, is incredibly ugly. And I have nothing but sympathy for the family. But what Kelly essentially was trying to do is clean this up and put it to bed.
And then Donald Trump once - as is his fashion, tweeted last night and made this a big partisan food fight again...
INSKEEP: And repeated that the Democratic congresswoman had lied about this.
GOLDBERG: ...And said that Wilson was lying and that this was all untrue and that it was completely fabricated - fake news, fake news, fake news. And it does call to mind how General Kelly last week in a press conference had said his only frustration in the job is reading things in the press that aren't true. And I always thought, look, I think he's a man of honor and integrity. But that could not possibly be true.
GOLDBERG: And I think this story demonstrates why.
INSKEEP: Well, the general, while he was at the podium, also expressed broader concerns about the direction of the country - in a sense, an old-time conservative view of the country and the direction of things. Let's listen.
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KELLY: You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred and looked upon with great honor. That's obviously not the case anymore, as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life was sacred. That's gone. Religion - that seems to be gone as well.
INSKEEP: And he goes on to say respect for Gold Star families is gone, too. Is he right about all that?
GOLDBERG: I think he's overstating it. And I think the partisan thrust of it - like, somehow this is all coming from one direction - is misguided as well. It's very difficult to listen to some of that indictment and not think how squarely it falls on the commander in chief. And - but I think a lot of people were willing to let all of that go in the apparently vain hope of putting this story to bed 'cause nobody likes this story. Nobody likes politicizing Gold Star families. This should be - there should be an absolute zone of sanctity and privacy around this part of life.
INSKEEP: And we think about some of these statements like women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. I think you could talk to a lot of people who would say that women were worse treated in the past and it's just that we talk more openly about what happens to women, what is done to women.
Two presidents, we mentioned, also spoke yesterday - one of them, President Obama. He spoke in Virginia and New Jersey. And he said, when you divide the country to win, you can't govern afterward. And then there's George W. Bush, who said this in New York.
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GEORGE W. BUSH: We've seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity.
INSKEEP: Was this a speech aimed at President Trump, even though the president was not named?
GOLDBERG: I think President Trump clearly falls within the larger indictment that George W. Bush was laying down. I actually thought the speech, when you read the whole thing or when you listen to the whole thing, was a very well-crafted piece of patriotic statesmanship. He's talking about the decline of democracy in Europe. He's talking about the decline of, essentially, what we used to call the vital center in American politics, the idea of deliberative democracy, of respect for other people, of human dignity.
INSKEEP: I'm trying not to laugh as you say deliberative democracy.
INSKEEP: We're pretty far from it at the moment. Go on.
GOLDBERG: I agree. I agree. And it's sort of like the Edsel. We can be nostalgic for it.
INSKEEP: (Laughter) It was a fine car.
GOLDBERG: (Laughter) And I think that the message was very clearly aimed at part in Trump. But it was a much broader thing. And I think a lot of Bush's former staffers and aides are quick to point out that this was a message that George W. Bush had given many times over many years. But it has new resonance simply because of the partisan nature and the atmosphere that Trump has created.
INSKEEP: Was President Obama right to say that if you divide in your campaign in order to win, you can't govern afterward?
GOLDBERG: I think he's certainly right that it creates a problem. If you demonize a vast chunk of the American electorate - whichever direction - while you're campaigning, saying it's us versus those guys, it's very difficult to get those guys back into the governing coalition when you want to be president for the entire country.
INSKEEP: Jonah, always a pleasure talking with you.
GOLDBERG: Hey, it's great to be here. Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's Jonah Goldberg of National Review and the LA Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.