When Bright Futures Outshine Dark Pasts

The story unraveling around Patrick Shanahan is tragic. But it reminds us of exactly who gets off easy, and why.

U.S. President Donald Trump and acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speak during a meeting at the White House on Jan. 2.
U.S. President Donald Trump and acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speak during a meeting at the White House on Jan. 2.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It is too soon to draw elaborate conclusions about the tragic domestic secrets that helped drive acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan out of government. On the surface, brutality against women, thwarted or delayed or overridden FBI background checks, and closed systems of lawyers paid to spin abusive behavior appears to be a recurrent theme among some powerful men in the ambit of this administration. As a read through the Washington Post’s devastating report on Shanahan makes clear, family trauma is hellish, and complicated, and life-altering, and nobody should judge conduct in such settings without fuller information than we now have. But one clear lesson we can derive from the stories now emerging from the Shanahan family is that privilege is the way bright young white men benefit from the fact that they are supposed to have bright futures ahead of them, in ways that end up self-fulfilling and overdetermined.

The Post’s Tuesday story is what a thorough background check of Shanahan would have revealed, and it borders on unreadable. It first recapitulates a story, initially reported by USA Today, of domestic abuse accusations between Shanahan and his then-wife in 2010 and clarifies that there are conflicting accounts of who the aggressor was in a fight outside the couple’s Seattle home. The details of this dispute are mostly just sad. But the Washington Post builds on and amplifies that story by reporting on an incident that took place in 2011, after Kimberley Shanahan obtained custody of their three children and moved to Florida.

According to police reports and contemporaneous documents, shortly after midnight on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011, Kimberley Shanahan and son William got into “a verbal dispute” over her suspicion that the 17-year-old was in a romantic relationship with a 36-year-old woman. According to police, just after 1:30 a.m., William “shoved and pinned his mother against a bathroom wall” before grabbing a $400 Nike composite baseball bat “to swing at her head,” striking her multiple times. “I attempted to run away from Will, but as I reached the laundry room, he struck me with the bat in the back of my head,” Kimberley Shanahan wrote in a court filing in the divorce case. “The last thing I remember from before I lost consciousness is the impact of the bat, and blood gushing everywhere.”

William, Sarasota police wrote, struck several blows to his mother’s head and torso and left her “to lie in a pool of blood” and then “unplugged the landline phone cord depriving the victim and [the younger brother] the use of 911 to render aid.” As William fled the home, situated in an exclusive barrier-island development called Bird Key, just outside Sarasota, he “tossed a bottle of rubbing alcohol” to his younger brother and told him “you clean her up,” according to the police report. The younger brother called 911 from a neighbor’s phone, according to police records.

As the 17-year-old fled the scene, his father first booked a flight to Florida and then a hotel room, where for four days he stayed with his son as he assembled a team of lawyers and attempted to recruit family members to assist in keeping William out of jail. Two weeks later, he sent his ex-wife’s brother a memo, which he claims to have written in the hours after the attack, arguing, among other things, that the attack had been an act of self-defense: “Use of a baseball bat in self-defense will likely be viewed as an imbalance of force,” Shanahan wrote. “However, Will’s mother harassed him for nearly three hours before the incident.” He also detailed that “she fueled the situation by berating him repeatedly in his room in a manner that escalated emotionally and physically.”

As the Post notes, Shanahan clarified in a subsequent custody battle—and again to reporters this week—that he does not believe assault with a baseball bat can ever be justified. Despite the written record stating the opposite, he even went further in the interview, saying he now regrets writing the passage and that “I have never believed Will’s attack on his mother was an act of self-defense or justified. I don’t believe violence is appropriate ever, and certainly never any justification for attacking someone with a baseball bat.” (That baseball bat, you may notice, just keeps coming up.)

Derek Byrd, head of the Sarasota criminal defense firm Patrick Shanahan hired to represent his son, told the Post he didn’t think Shanahan did anything wrong in waiting until his son had consulted a defense attorney before contacting the police. “I don’t think Pat handled that time frame inappropriately,” Byrd said in an interview. “I think he was just doing what a reasonable dad should probably do. I’m sure the timeline looks bad on paper, but he didn’t do anything that I consider out of the ordinary, and he wasn’t hiding Will.” Once contacted, the police gave Shanahan a few more days to turn William in, Byrd said.

Is it normal to keep your 17-year-old son in a hotel room rather than bringing him to the police after he’s beaten his mother bloody? Is it usual that the police give a few days to turn him in once you’ve let them know where you both are? Here’s how the detective on the case remembers it: “If someone calls and says they’re going to turn in a suspect on a Sunday night and he’s already lawyered up with someone who has a reputation like Byrd, for being on TV, what can you do? You can’t force an attorney to turn in his client,” Halpin said. If William Shanahan hadn’t had a quick-thinking father with deep enough pockets to hire such an attorney, he wouldn’t have been afforded all of these courtesies.

But again, this brings us back to the baseball bat. Because according to the Post:

Patrick Shanahan and Byrd came to the hearing prepared to plead for the younger Shanahan to remain out of custody, citing his baseball career at an exclusive youth sports academy and prep school attended by sons and daughters of major league athletes.

“He’s a college baseball prospect. He has dreams. He has a future. His father is an executive of Boeing,” Byrd said, according to an audio recording that the court released to The Post. “If he has to sit in jail for 21 days, not only is that going to traumatize him, he’s not going to finish the semester, probably get kicked off the baseball team … everything is going to be over for him.”

A golden future, as we continue to discover, can be cashed in as a get out of jail free card in the American criminal justice system. It just so happens that golden futures are not available to everyone, only the golden kids.

The judge overseeing William Shanahan’s case declined to release him from custody, calling pictures of the crime scene “horrendous.” The 17-year-old was initially charged with two felonies, aggravated battery, and tampering with a victim. He faced up to 15 years in prison. Eventually, he was charged as an adult with one felony: aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. He pleaded that down to a third-degree felony, and in 2012, a state prosecutor agreed, via a Florida-specific “withhold of adjudication” rule, to reduce the length of the sentence and the probation. He “was ordered to spend 18 months at a Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch and sentenced to four years’ probation. Both penalties were later reduced.”

Per the Post, “The following year, in 2013, William enrolled at the University of Washington, according to his LinkedIn page. His father had recently joined the university’s board of regents. The family had other ties to the school. Patrick’s father, Michael, had served as police chief for the university for more than two decades.”

Patrick Shanahan told the Post this week that “bad things can happen to good families … and this is a tragedy, really.” Re-litigating the incident in public, he contended, “will ruin my son’s life.” In a statement withdrawing his name from consideration for the position of secretary of defense, he further wrote that “after having been confirmed for Deputy Secretary less than two years ago, it is unfortunate that a painful and deeply personal family situation from long ago is being dredged up and painted in an incomplete and therefore misleading way in the course of this process. I believe my continuing in the confirmation process would force my three children to relive a traumatic chapter in our family’s life and reopen wounds we have worked years to heal. Ultimately, their safety and well-being is my highest priority.”

Families are entitled to be spared from re-traumatization. Fathers are entitled to try to do everything they can to try to protect their children from harm, even when their children make grievous errors. Children are entitled to be afforded the benefit of the doubt, and yes, David Brooks, they should be allowed to repent and redeem and grow (though that doesn’t require admission to Harvard).

But these claims should be true for all families and not just families who can plead the “bright futures” defense. They should be true of all children, not just children whose parents know people at good schools where bright futures are the principal export. The brightness of a young person’s future, in sum, has everything to do with their status as a human being with the potential to learn and grow, and not with their position as a talented athlete on the verge of recruitment or their father’s capacity to pay for a lawyer. Bright futures are a reason to show mercy toward all young people, perhaps, but not a reason to spare only some. One reason we have gone so dismally wrong with the American dream is that we base the calculus about the likelihood of moral redemption solely on proximity to future success—and if you are one of the lucky destined for success, heaven help the women, the journalists, or the laws that stand in your way.

Beyond that, adults seeking a position in the Cabinet of the executive branch of our government—indeed, the position that oversees the greatest military entity in the world—ought to realize they are seeking a privilege. No one is entitled to such a role. No one should expect to sail through a confirmation process without having to face questions about one’s past. It is troubling that Democrats on the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, the committee tasked with vetting nominees for the role, are now saying that they hadn’t yet received a full FBI file on Shanahan, and that no one had alerted them of these incidents. It does not matter if one’s past is traumatic because seeking such a position is not a requirement, it is an option. It’s being vetted properly for the position once it is sought that is not optional.

Do you want to know the very definition of privilege? It’s the power to beat your mother to a pulp using the selfsame $400 Nike composite baseball bat that will be used to argue for your bright future the following week in court. And then it’s the added power to say that you shouldn’t be called upon to answer for your defense of this line of thinking—even if it is your child—before ascending to an extraordinarily consequential position, because talking about it would be too traumatic.

There are hundreds of service members who are alleged to have committed domestic violence and have been protected and undisciplined by the military. Patrick Shanahan was poised to be in charge of all of them. No doubt he would have excused them on the basis of their bright futures, futures in which they were poised to serve their country. And nobody in the White House seems to have believed that this warranted one bit of discussion.