Milbank: A rebuke of Trump from the Greatest Generation

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Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Email: danamilbank@washpost.com.

John Warner, veteran of World War II and Korea, speechwriter in the Eisenhower White House, secretary of the Navy in the Nixon Pentagon, Republican senator from Virginia, and longtime chairman and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee before his retirement in 2009, performed one more act of public service Wednesday.

He urged those who love the military and care about American leadership to defeat Donald Trump.

Warner — endorsing the Democratic ticket while standing in Alexandria, Va., with fellow Virginian Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate — spoke bitterly of Trump’s description of the military as a “disaster” and a “shambles” with the generals reduced to “rubble.”

“We have today the strongest military in the world; no one can compare with us,” Warner said. Though the military needs to be modernized, he added, “no one should have the audacity to stand up and degrade the Purple Heart, degrade military families or talk about the military being in a state of disaster. That’s wrong!”

These were strong words coming from the courtly 89-year-old, one of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands and a revered figure in the military. Warner is a throwback to a different time, one of unflinching patriotism, civility, a recognition that your political opponent is not your enemy, and a dedication to consensus for the good of country.

These were the hallmarks of Warner’s generation, the Greatest Generation, “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace,” as John F. Kennedy put it in 1961. “I look back with deep respect for those who taught me the fundamentals of duty and honor and country at the age of 17” when he enlisted, Warner said. “I’m here solely because of what I learned then.”

Those attributes faded as baby boomers took the reins of government in the mid-1990s, and it has been worsening ever since, reaching rock bottom — one hopes — with the current Republican presidential nominee, a human insult machine, ill-prepared and unconcerned about it. Now party comes before country, both in the refusal to compromise in the legislature and in the mass rallying of Republicans around Trump.

But a few have, like Warner, risen above party, and they deserve praise for their bravery. Another is George H.W. Bush, who has indicated privately that he will vote for Clinton.

A contrast to Trump

Warner, in his decency, is everything that Trump is not.

He governed by consensus. “I had partners in Barry Goldwater and Sam Nunn and John Stennis and John Tower … old Scoop Jackson, and I learned from those men,” Warner said. “That’s why I feel distressed about some of the comments made by the opponent to this ticket.”

He was unfailingly civil. “Candidate Clinton maintained composure throughout the debate; the other candidate, in my judgment, did not,” he said. “She was firm but fair and, underline, respectful. That’s one word that’s totally lacking on the other side of this ticket.”

And Warner was diligent. “We are, like it or not, the leader of the free world,” he said, and the president must “have a very firm and fundamental understanding” about America’s role and responsibility. “You don’t pull up a quick text like National Security for Dummies,” he said. Presidents “have got to understand there are times they don’t know everything, but they can learn, and particularly they can learn if they’ve got a foundation of their own experience to build upon.”

Warner’s language was formal, almost archaic. He spoke of the “opponent,” not mentioning Trump by name — until he returned to the microphone to say one more thing after his 16-minute speech. “When I recall what the opponent has said about the military, I shake my head,” Warner adding, recalling the placard on the wall in Marine boot camp in 1945: “Loose lips sink ships. Got that Trump? Loose lips sink ships.”

Coming from this genteel and proud old Republican, the words were more powerful than the coarsest insult Trump could tweet.