Farewell to the King

Rear Admiral John Kirby Steps Away from the Podium


“Kirby resigns as Pentagon press secretary”

The six words flashed across my screen quickly as I scanned the afternoon news, causing me to pause briefly and scroll my mouse in the opposite direction. I hung on those words for just a moment before clicking on the Stars and Stripes article.

Seven paragraphs, 13 sentences, 677 words.

On his first full day in the chair, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carton announced his intent to replace Pentagon Spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby with a civilian. That’s his prerogative. He gets to make that call. We don't have to like it, I get that. But this just doesn't seem like the place to start on the first day in the office.

We're still mired in Afghanistan, one foot in and one foot out as we try to make a graceful exit from the Graveyard of Empires. We're back in Iraq, trying to piece together a military force that was routed into retreat from the rising specter of ISIS. We're trying to convince the world that we're serious about a Pacific Pivot while the Middle East and Africa refuse to allow us to turn our backs on them. A restive Russia is on the offensive in Ukraine. The looming cloud of sequestration. You know, the kinds of things that would keep a defense secretary up at night.

John Kirby brought three things to the podium that are a rare combination in this business: credibility, character, and competence. Together, they equated to a presence that was second to none. He earned the respect and admiration of the Pentagon Press Corps, built relationships that spanned to the soggy side of the Potomac, and calmly managed each and every crisis that ballooned within the walls of The Building (and there were quite a few). In a tenure that lasted just 14 months (I know, it seemed like more), he became a calm voice of reason in Washington unlike any other, eclipsing both the White House and State Department press secretaries at a time when there was more than enough bad news to go around.

But John Kirby is also a professional. He didn't slouch away from the podium, he didn't hang his head. He stood tall and addressed the Press Corps like he did so many times before.

“One of the questions that I think he wants to rhetorically ask and consider is not just who the individual is, but what that individual represents, and whether it’s appropriate or not to have a [person in] uniform up here,” Kirby said. “And those are fair questions for him to ask as he comes into the job.”

That’s Kirby at his best. Delivering the bad news while gesturing with knife hands that would bring a smile to retired Marine General James “Chaos” Mattis. Only this time, he was the subject of the bad news. But John Kirby is a professional, and only a professional could stand before the media and calmly and deftly discuss his own dismissal.

Typically, a new secretary of defense will bring in his own spokesman. Carter had not decided on a replacement according to Kirby, who said he has agreed to stay on for “a couple of weeks” to help with the transition.

I get it. We all get it. The Secretary gets to make the call. But two things gnaw at me. One, the person who stands at the podium as the Pentagon’s crisis communicator doesn't exactly rise to the top of the priority list. Certainly not on Day 1. Two, Kirby deserves better. A lot better. Donald Rumsfeld famously played the “You're dead to me!” card on Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, but even he didn't do it on his first day in office.

When the smoke clears from today’s news, Rear Admiral John Kirby will land on his feet. A man with his “particular set of skills” is a valuable commodity in Washington and even more so in the business world, where the Nation’s premiere crisis communicator will find a warm welcome. This, too, shall pass. But for now, it’s okay to be a little pissed off.

Farewell to the King. Admiral Kirby has left the building.