There was a kid in junior high school everyone was terrified of — we’ll call him Jimmy C.
When Jimmy C. walked the hallways of Pelham Memorial High School circa 1975, the river of students scurrying between classrooms immediately parted. Engaging him was madness; you’d end up shoved, punched or having your books “spilled” to the floor. So we’d hug the lockers while Jimmy walked center aisle.
One day Jimmy disappeared. I can’t recall what prompted his extraction from school. Rumor was he got “sent to juvie,” though none of us truly knew what “juvie” was. We didn’t much care, so long as he was out of our hair.
But about six months later, there was Jimmy’s picture in the local paper, The Pelham Sun. He hadn’t been arrested — he’d won some award at The New York Military Academy in upstate Cornwall the same academy to which President Donald Trump was sent as an errant 13-year-old boy. We seventh-graders were sure it was all a ruse; no way Jimmy C. had turned a corner. But when he next visited our school, and the time after that, he was a markedly changed person. He had found discipline.
Memories of Jimmy C. immediately came to mind when President Donald Trump announced that retired Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly would be taking over as White House chief of staff. It made perfect sense. From day one it was clear that the president lacked confidence in outgoing Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, but more important, from day one there has been chaos within this administration. It desperately needs fixing.
Short-lived White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, mistakenly hinted at the problem in one of his first interviews by employing what he called an old Italian expression (The Greeks and Chinese would argue that). “The fish stinks from the head down,” he announced — before quickly and unconvincingly explaining that he didn’t mean Trump.
I’ve always known the expression as “the fish rots from the head down,” and I’ve found it unalterably true in all the jobs I’ve held and in all the organizations with which I’ve been associated. When the person at the top isn’t grounded, the whole thing comes apart.
I’m no psychologist, but I can’t help thinking that Trump’s appointment of Kelly is a call for aid from a man who recalls the security of discipline he experienced as a boy. He knows he needs help.
There are conflicting reports about Trump’s performance at military school. By some accounts he was a star cadet. Others suggest he acted out even there.
“Even at an academy renowned for imposing strict standards on its cadets, Trump often managed to play by his own rules,” one 2016 report reads. “He often left campus on weekends and drew the envy of fellow students for his habit of bringing attractive women to the school. He also stirred resentment from some in his orbit.”
What’s incontrovertible is that Trump did what was necessary to graduate from The New York Military Academy in 1964, and he went on to achieve a great deal, including winning the highest office in the land.
The question before the nation now isn’t whether Kelly can impose discipline on the Trump cabinet — he immediately canned Scaramucci for vulgarity — but whether he can instill it in Trump himself. Can Kelly reawaken in our commander in chief the habits that put Jimmy C. on the right track?
One can only hope.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.