This eye-popping report from the Washington Post prompts a question. By Joe Biden’s standards, is his administration more like George Wallace or Jefferson Davis? An attempt to appoint a new head of a panel that oversees military monuments and cemeteries has erupted in accusations of racism and arguments over privilege in the White House:
A clash over race and social status has roiled a panel of Biden administration appointees entrusted with overseeing military cemeteries and war monuments, after a former U.S. ambassador and retired Marine who is Black was replaced as the group’s chairman by a White retired general, according to internal correspondence obtained by The Washington Post and interviews with nine people familiar with the matter.
John L. Estrada, the former ambassador, was elected chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission on Nov. 9, but commissioners disagreed over how long he would hold the post. Estrada and at least two other commissioners believed he would serve indefinitely through the Biden administration. But the majority of the group said that they had agreed that they would vote on the role again if the White House appointed another member to a last, vacant commissioner position, and that they expected that retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a high-profile CNN news analyst, would join their ranks within days.
Estrada, while serving as chairman, wrote in a Dec. 9 email to all of the panel’s 10 other commissioners that the issue was “divisive,” saying he had been asked by people outside the group whether his race was a factor. Estrada had just become the first person of color, immigrant and enlisted military veteran to become chairman. He came to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago at age 14, and rose to become the senior-most enlisted member of the Marine Corps through the height of the Iraq War.
Hertling won the chair in a new election on December 15, two weeks after taking his seat on the commission following Biden’s appointment. Estrada ended up chairing the committee for a whole six weeks or so. That may sound like a tempest in a teapot, especially since the committee members serve without pay, but they run an administration bureau that employs hundreds of people and has an annual budget of $84 million at present. Furthermore, as is true of Biden’s personnel choices in general, the administration has cited these appointments in support of their commitment to “diversity.”
It might be a better example of organizational incompetency. Hertling had been recruited for one of the voting commission positions, but instead got selected for the paid (and apparently non-voting) commission secretary position. Hertling gamely accepted the job even though he had been clear that he wanted a volunteer position. That became especially problematic when he discovered that the pay came with strings attached, too:
The retired general said he did not realize that there were ethical requirements for the position that prevented him from having other employment, until he was told by government lawyers that he would need to file a financial disclosure form.
“I said, ‘Oh, man,’” Hertling recalled. “The main driver of me wanting to be on this commission or doing anything for the government — and I specifically told people this — is I don’t want to be paid. I’ve had a great, four-decade-long career in the military, and I don’t want to be paid for any government positions. That’s where it became a sticking point.”
Hertling then insisted that he wanted to resign and take one of the unpaid spots on the commission. Unfortunately, the White House didn’t act until after the November 9 election that put Estrada in the chair. The paid secretary job made Hertling ineligible for the election, which is why some members wanted a do-over after Hertling’s status got resolved. Estrada ran for the chair position and won it while all of this was up in the air, becoming the first person of color and immigrant in the job … for six weeks.
Estrada then began to accuse the commission of racism in its decision to hold a second election, and that blew the dispute out into the open:
After Estrada raised questions via email about the motivation for his removal as chairman, a retired admiral on the board, Michael Smith, responded emotionally.
“I hoped we could discuss this calmly,” he wrote to the full panel. “But just because we might have different memories is no reason to ‘wonder’ or ‘question’ if I am racist, don’t value enlisted members or disrespect immigrants.”
Smith added that if Estrada did not withdraw his remarks, Smith “may not be able to serve on this Board” with him. In an interview, Smith said that he talked with Estrada on the phone later and that Estrada told him he was not accusing him of being racist.
No? Estrada doesn’t sound like he’s veiling that accusation all that effectively at the moment:
“I can’t believe that this thing is happening at this day and time when we keep talking about equality and fairness,” Estrada told The Post. “These guys really pushed me to the limit. So yeah, it did make me wonder.” …
Estrada said White men have led the commission for its entire 99-year history. Hertling, he said, could have “stepped up and shown leadership” and backed Estrada becoming chairman, especially because Estrada also served on the commission during the Obama administration and Hertling did not.
“Am I qualified for it?” Estrada said. “Damn right I’m qualified for it!”
Once again, the measure of “leadership” on race issues is to withdraw from it. Otherwise, though, Estrada has a point even apart from the race issues. If the commission wanted to hold off on an election until all seats were filled, then they should have, y’know, held off on the election. Instead, they held it and Estrada won it. Under the circumstances, one would expect to serve a full term as chair, although “full term” in this case is also oddly ambiguous, and the commission apparently doesn’t take minutes of its executive-session meetings where discussions over all these issues took place. (Aside: What the heck was Hertling doing as secretary if he didn’t take minutes?)
There are a couple of military terms that describe the situation: FUBAR and SNAFU. Those are increasingly common in the Biden administration, which looks less like Wallace or Davis and more like Inspector Clouseau every day. This backfire on race and privilege within Biden’s bumbling White House is a pretty good karmic response to his hideous demagoguery last week in Georgia.