Sarah Huckabee Sanders's nonsense 'all leaders have flaws' defense of John Kelly's Robert E. Lee comments

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded on Oct. 31 to White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly calling Robert E. Lee "an honorable man." (Reuters)

Sarah Huckabee Sanders knew she would be asked Tuesday about John Kelly's controversial comments about how Robert E. Lee was an “honorable man” and how the Civil War was the result of a lack of “compromise.” And she came prepared for the question.

“Look: All of our leaders have flaws,” Sanders began, clearly reading her response. “Washington, Jefferson, JFK, Roosevelt, Kennedy. That doesn't diminish their contributions to our country. It certainly can't erase them from our history. And General Kelly was simply making the point that just because history isn't perfect doesn't mean it's not our history.”

This argument — or some variation of it — is at the heart of basically all cases for commemorating the Confederacy. On its surface, it makes perfect sense. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both owned slaves, after all, so why would we single out Robert E. Lee for leading the South in a war over that same right? Kennedy, whom Sanders mentioned twice in the span of three names, had his personal sins. Teddy Roosevelt is remembered by some as a warmonger.

But inherent in any decision to memorialize someone is an inescapable value judgment — a judgment that whatever these figures did wrong was eclipsed by their contributions. Plenty of famous figures made “contributions to our country” but also did horrible things. We don't commemorate Christopher Columbus as much these days, for instance, because many have decided that slaughtering Native Americans was a pretty terrible price to pay for the discovery of our country. Andrew Jackson has fallen out of favor with many for similar reasons. Bill Cosby certainly blazed a trail in American comedy and society, but it's not even a question of whether we celebrate him anymore. Taken to the extreme, you could make the same argument about certain foreign leaders throughout history who may have done some very important things for their countries but also committed unspeakable, infamous acts.

People are certainly complicated, and the further back in history you go, the more complicated they become — given that society hadn't progressed to where we find ourselves now. But it's always a balancing act between the good and the bad. You can't escape it, and to make an argument pretending that balancing act doesn't exist is fanciful. The question is not whether we should “erase them from our history,” but whether we should choose to memorialize them for the good things, when measured against the bad things.

Which Sanders eventually conceded, kind of. In his follow-up question, the New York Times's Glenn Thrush smartly asked whether the same standard applied to Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, who has been memorialized across the South. Forrest certainly wasn't perfect, but he was also part of our history.

Here's the exchange:

THRUSH: Do you think there are certain Confederate figures who don't deserve to be honored, like Nathan Bedford Forrest?

SANDERS: Look, I don't think that we should sit here and debate every moment of history. I think those moments took place. There are moments that we're going to be a lot less proud of than others, but we can't erase the fact that they happened. I think you have to determine where that line is. The president has said that those are something that should be left up to state and local governments, and that's not who I'm here representing today, so I'm not going to get into the back and forth on it.

So while Sanders started by saying “all of our leaders have flaws” — basically, that we can't judge someone out of our history — she ended by saying, “You have to determine where that line is.” Which is exactly right. Kelly's line on Robert E. Lee may be different from other people's, but it's still a line.

Sanders said flaws don't “diminish their contributions to our country,” but they most certainly do — as Sanders herself later acknowledged.

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