It’s early yet, and first impressions are sometimes misleading. But not often. John Kelly looks like the best appointment President Trump has made since he named Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Not just because he had Anthony Scaramucci escorted by security from the White House grounds to Pennsylvania Avenue, in a version of the familiar perp walk, after he was sacked as the White House communications chief. Mr. Kelly looks like — it’s early, but he looks like — the grown-up this White House has desperately needed. Maybe Donald Trump can absorb a late education, after all.
The president likes generals. That’s why he sprinkled several good ones throughout his administration. Perhaps the president picked up respect for a man with brass on his shoulders when he was a wee lad at a military academy. Childhood impressions can be good ones. He was drawn to Mr. Scaramucchi, on the other hand, because he was a man who made a lot of money on Wall Street.
The president is impressed by money. Millions of Americans are. Money is not a disqualification for either respect or public office, but neither is it evidence that a rich man necessarily has the credentials for high public office.
It’s clear enough that the president has an eye for talent, and he may understand now that it’s time to quit clowning and do something to salvage seriousness. John Kelly, unlike some of the worthies in the White House, demonstrates that he doesn’t want a job at the expense of surrendering his name. He obviously made sure when he took the job as White House chief of staff that he would do the job his way, and would brook no impulsive interference even from the impulsive president.
Best of all, a four-star Marine Corps general is not likely to put up with anything that would ruin a reputation. Bringing in the clowns — or keeping one — is not the way he would straighten out a chaotic White House. The president’s tweet to the contrary notwithstanding, chaos is exactly what the public sees when it looks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Perception, whether the president likes it or not, is the reality in Washington, and one way or another everybody who spends time in the nation’s capital learns that.
Ideology is no substitute for competence, ability and proficiency. Donald Trump clearly doesn’t demand ideological clones, and an ideology doesn’t hold much appeal for him since he never acquired one himself. He’s a very smart ignorant man, with little of the curiosity that attracts the thinking or chattering classes, which have a blind spot of their own since they do not readily recognize native smarts. The Donald has those in abundance.
John Kelly brings both smarts and intelligence to the job. A man doesn’t acquire a fourth star (or even a second and third) without acquiring polish and a steady hand to go with it. He brings something else to the job, a sense of dignity and an appreciation of fundamental decorum, which has been sorely missing in the Trump ranks from the beginning.
Mr. Kelly was obviously offended, as were millions of Americans liberal, conservative and other, by Anthony Scaramucci’s braggadocio, swagger and low-life behavior. Mr. Scaramucci may think he has a unique mule skinner’s command of sordid language, and worse, but mule skinners working on an advanced degree in vulgarity, sexual and otherwise, could learn a lot on a Marine parade ground or barracks. But the new chief of staff, who has heard it all, was offended not only by Mr. Scaramucci’s public language, and worse, his lack of basic understanding of how people are expected to deal with each other, his disrespect for those with whom he was charged with supervising, and his ignorance of the well understood rule that anything you say to a reporter in Washington will show up on a printed page unless it’s clear beforehand that the conversation is off the record. And even then, a man must be careful.
The president put out the word on Mr. Kelly’s first day that he would have the authority to tighten the chain of command. His press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said “he has full authority to carry out business as he sees fit.” Even the president’s daughter and son-in-law have to report to the chief of staff. The Oval Office will no longer be Grand Central Station, with everyone free to walk in to see the president without an appointment.
Mr. Kelly has a lot of work to do to make all this stick. The good news is that the president seems to finally understand that competence is better than chaos. We’ll know Mr. Kelly has succeeded when the president closes his Twitter account.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.