Who Do They Think We Are? The administration’s Ebola evasions reveal its disdain for the American people.

The administration’s handling of the Ebola crisis continues to be marked by double talk, runaround and gobbledygook. And its logic is worse than its language. In many of its actions, especially its public pronouncements, the government is functioning not as a soother of public anxiety but the cause of it.

An example this week came in the dialogue between Megyn Kelly of Fox News and Thomas Frieden , director of the Centers for Disease Control.

Their conversation focused largely on the government’s refusal to stop travel into the United States by citizens of plague nations. “Why not put a travel ban in place,” Ms. Kelly asked, while we shore up the U.S. public-health system?

Mad DoctorDr. Frieden replied that we now have screening at airports, and “we’ve already recommended that all nonessential travel to these countries be stopped for Americans.” He added: “We’re always looking at ways that we can better protect Americans.”

“But this is one,” Ms. Kelly responded.

Dr. Frieden implied a travel ban would be harmful: “If we do things that are going to make it harder to stop the epidemic there, it’s going to spread to other parts of—”

Ms. Kelly interjected, asking how keeping citizens from the affected regions out of America would make it harder to stop Ebola in Africa.

“Because you can’t get people in and out.”

“Why can’t we have charter flights?”

“You know, charter flights don’t do the same thing commercial airliners do.”

“What do you mean? They fly in and fly out.”

Dr. Frieden replied that limiting travel between African nations would slow relief efforts. “If we isolate these countries, what’s not going to happen is disease staying there. It’s going to spread more all over Africa and we’ll be at higher risk.”

Later in the interview, Ms. Kelly noted that we still have airplanes coming into the U.S. from Liberia, with passengers expected to self-report Ebola exposure.

Dr. Frieden responded: “Ultimately the only way—and you may not like this—but the only way we will get our risk to zero here is to stop the outbreak in Africa.”

Ms. Kelly said yes, that’s why we’re sending troops. But why can’t we do that and have a travel ban?

“If it spreads more in Africa, it’s going to be more of a risk to us here. Our only goal is protecting Americans—that’s our mission. We do that by protecting people here and by stopping threats abroad. That protects Americans.”

Dr. Frieden’s logic was a bit of a heart-stopper. In fact his responses were more non sequiturs than answers. We cannot ban people at high risk of Ebola from entering the U.S. because people in West Africa have Ebola, and we don’t want it to spread. Huh?

In testimony before Congress Thursday, Dr. Frieden was not much more straightforward. His answers often sound like filibusters: long, rolling paragraphs of benign assertion, advertising slogans—“We know how to stop Ebola,” “Our focus is protecting people”—occasionally extraneous data, and testimony to the excellence of our health-care professionals.

It is my impression that everyone who speaks for the government on this issue has been instructed to imagine his audience as anxious children. It feels like how the pediatrician talks to the child, not the parents. It’s as if they’ve been told: “Talk, talk, talk, but don’t say anything. Clarity is the enemy.”

The language of government now is word-spew.

Dr. Frieden did not explain his or the government’s thinking on the reasons for opposition to a travel ban. On the other hand, he noted that the government will consider all options in stopping the virus from spreading here, so perhaps that marks the beginning of a possible concession.

It is one thing that Dr. Frieden, and those who are presumably making the big decisions, have been so far incapable of making a believable and compelling case for not instituting a ban. A separate issue is how poor a decision it is. To call it childish would be unfair to children. In fact, if you had a group of 11-year-olds, they would surely have a superior answer to the question: “Sick people are coming through the door of the house, and we are not sure how to make them well. Meanwhile they are starting to make us sick, too. What is the first thing to do?”

The children would reply: “Close the door.” One would add: “Just for a while, while you figure out how to treat everyone getting sick.” Another might say: “And keep going outside the door in protective clothing with medical help.” Eleven-year-olds would get this one right without a lot of struggle.

If we don’t momentarily close the door to citizens of the affected nations, it is certain that more cases will come into the U.S. It is hard to see how that helps anyone. Closing the door would be no guarantee of safety—nothing is guaranteed, and the world is porous. But it would reduce risk and likelihood, which itself is worthwhile.

Africa, by the way, seems to understand this. The Associated Press on Thursday reported the continent’s health-care officials had limited the threat to only five countries with the help of border controls, travel restrictions, and aggressive and sophisticated tracking.

All of which returns me to my thoughts the past few weeks. Back then I’d hear the official wordage that doesn’t amount to a logical thought, and the unspoken air of “We don’t want to panic you savages,” and I’d look at various public officials and muse: “Who do you think you are?”

Now I think, “Who do they think we are?”

Does the government think if America is made to feel safer, she will forget the needs of the Ebola nations? But Americans, more than anyone else, are the volunteers, altruists and in a few cases saints who go to the Ebola nations to help. And they were doing it long before the Western media was talking about the disease, and long before America was experiencing it.

At the Ebola hearings Thursday, Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) said, I guess to the American people: “Don’t panic.” No one’s panicking—except perhaps the administration, which might explain its decisions.

Is it always the most frightened people who run around telling others to calm down?

This week the president canceled a fundraiser and returned to the White House to deal with the crisis. He made a statement and came across as about three days behind the story—“rapid response teams” and so forth. It reminded some people of the statement in July, during another crisis, of the president’s communications director, who said that when a president rushes back to Washington, it “can have the unintended consequence of unduly alarming the American people.” Yes, we’re such sissies. Actually, when Mr. Obama eschews a fundraiser to go to his office to deal with a public problem we are not scared, only surprised.

But again, who do they think we are? You gather they see us as poor, panic-stricken people who want a travel ban because we’re beside ourselves with fear and loathing. Instead of practical, realistic people who are way ahead of our government.

Is ‘Worthy Fights’ Worthy? Unlike his Pentagon predecessor, Leon Panetta hasn’t written a serious memoir.

There’s the sense of an absence where the president should be.

Decisions are made—by someone, or some agency—on matters of great consequence, Ebola, for instance. The virus has swept three nations of West Africa; a Liberian visitor has just died in Dallas. The Centers for Disease Control says it is tracking more than 50 people with whom he had contact.

The commonsense thing—not brain science, just common sense—would be for the government to say: “As of today we will stop citizens of the affected nations from entering the U.S. We will ban appropriate flights, and as time passes we’ll see where we are. We can readjust as circumstances change. But for now, easy does it—slow things down.”

Instead the government chooses to let the flow of individuals from infected countries continue. They will be screened at five U.S. airports, where their temperatures will be taken and they will be asked if they have been around anyone with Ebola.

A lot of them, knowingly or unknowingly, have been around Ebola. People who are sick do not in the early stages have elevated temperatures. People who are desperate to leave a plague state will, understandably if wrongly, lie on questionnaires.

U.S. health-care workers at airports will not early on be organized, and will not always show good judgment. TSA workers sometimes let through guns and knives. These workers will be looking for microbes, which, as they say, are harder to see. A baby teething can run a fever; so will a baby with the virus. A nurse or doctor with long experience can tell the difference. Will the airport workers?

None of this plan makes sense. It’s busy work meant to foster confidence. But it encourages the feeling that no one’s in charge, the federal government isn’t working, everyone’s dissembling, and the No. 1 priority is to keep the public calm as opposed to safe.

*   *   *

And now this week’s story on the big absence.

Leon Panetta & Barrack Obama

President Obama with outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in 2013.

Leon Panetta ’s “Worthy Fights” pretends to offer answers to a problem of which the book is actually an example—the mindless (as opposed to thoughtful and constructive) partisanship that has seized Washington. This memoir of his years as a successful political and bureaucratic player is obnoxious and lacks stature. Reading a comparable book, Robert Gates ’s recent, stinging memoir, you could see through the lines a broken heart. In Mr. Panetta’s you see mostly spleen.

He is catty about David Petraeus —his office is “a shrine . . . to himself.” Mr. Panetta subtly, deftly, with a winning oh-goshness, takes a whole lot of credit for the bin Laden raid. This section is accompanied by unctuous compliments for Mr. Obama, whose chief brilliance appears to be that he listened to Mr. Panetta.

“Worthy Fights” is highly self-regarding even for a Washington book. Mr. Panetta is always surprised, due to his natural modesty, to be offered yet another, higher position. He reluctantly accepts and wins over doubters with his plain, no-B.S. style. He does well, seeing around corners, saving budgets, and developing relationships with anxious prime ministers who need a pal.

Publicly Mr. Panetta has always been at great pains to show the smiling, affable face of one who is above partisanship. But this book is smugly, grubbily partisan. Republicans aren’t bright and never good, though some— Bob Dole comes up—are reasonable. Republican presidents tend to be weak or care only for the rich. He really, really hates Newt Gingrich . His headline on the entire Reagan era: “Poverty spread and deepened during the Reagan years.” Under Bill Clinton “the economy boomed,” “poverty shrunk,” and “leadership matters.” Reagan, in fairness, was less terrible than Mr. Panetta expected, “less ideological and partisan.” Mr. Clinton is “ravenously intelligent.” Mr. Panetta lauds Mr. Clinton’s “astonishing ability to sift through facts” and his “empathy for average people.” The compliments are at once lackeyish and patronizing.

In the epilogue Mr. Panetta seems to catch himself and writes, dictates or edits in the thought that he does not mean “to suggest that Democrats are good and Republicans are bad.” But that is what he repeatedly suggests.

Here’s what is disturbing: to think this is one of Washington’s wise men.

Here’s what’s true. At 76, at the end of a half-century-long, richly rewarded career, with perspective having presumably been gained and smallness washed away, in a book of history and reflection written at a time of high national peril, a lack of political graciousness, and the continued presence of a dumb and grinding partisanship, is unattractive to the point of unseemly.

Mr. Panetta perhaps took this tack to buy himself space on the left. He is telling partisan Democrats on the ground that he’s really one of them, he hates those Republicans too, so you can trust him when he tells you Mr. Obama’s presidency is not a success.

Which he does.

There is “a problem with President Obama’s use of his cabinet.” Every decision now comes from the White House, from people around the president, so secretaries learn not to take the initiative or push for needed change.

Enforced passivity tends to filter down. Which would explain a few things.

On Iraq, Mr. Panetta says he argued that if we did not leave behind a residual force to provide security and training, the country would slip into chaos with terrorists filling the vacuum. The White House pushed back; things got heated. Mr. Panetta’s side came to see the White House as “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.” That is a serious charge. The White House won, and Iraq deteriorated.

Mr. Obama is scored for “failing to lead Congress” out of the sequester. The president’s “most conspicuous weakness” is “a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.” He is “supremely intelligent”—almost ravenously intelligent—but “sometimes lacks fire.” He “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.”

All this is credible and accords with the testimony of others. But it is fair to ask if he cared so much why he didn’t leave and speak sooner. It is fair to ask how much he left out. One reads and senses: a lot.

Actually the way the president increasingly comes across, and not only in this book, is as eccentric—a person drawn to political power who doesn’t much like politics, or people, and who takes little joy from the wielding of power. Mr. Panetta suggests Mr. Obama isn’t good at rah-rah. He’s good at rah-rah for himself, just not for other causes.

The book has been received cynically in some precincts and supportively in others, where Mr. Panetta’s candor and bravery are lauded. I’m not sure brave is the right word for a man who knows where the bodies are buried and can more than take care of himself in a street fight.

Some say he wrote the book to help detach Hillary Clinton ’s fortunes from those of Mr. Obama. Maybe, but Mr. Panetta is savvy, shrewd and quick to see where things are going. I suspect he’s trying to detach his entire party’s fortunes from Mr. Obama. Reading this book and considering its timing, you get the impression that’s the real worthy battle on his mind.

The New Bureaucratic Brazenness Official arrogance is the source of public cynicism.

We’re all used to a certain amount of doublespeak and bureaucratese in government hearings. That’s as old as forever. But in the past year of listening to testimony from government officials, there is something different about the boredom and indifference with which government testifiers skirt, dodge and withhold the truth. They don’t seem furtive or defensive; they are not in the least afraid. They speak always with a certain carefulness—they are lawyered up—but they have no evident fear of looking evasive. They really don’t care what you think of them. They’re running the show and if you don’t like it, too bad.

And all this is a new bureaucratic style on the national level. During Watergate those hauled in and grilled by Congress were nervous. In Iran-Contra, Olllie North was in turn stoic, defiant and unafraid to make an appeal to the public. But commissioners and department heads now—they really think they’re in charge. They don’t bother to fake anxiety about public opinion. They care only about personal legal exposure. They do not fear public wrath.

All this became apparent in the past year’s IRS hearings, and was pronounced in Tuesday’s Secret Service hearings.

Julia Pierson , the director, did not seem at all preoccupied with what you thought of her. She was impassive, generally unresponsive and unforthcoming. She didn’t bother to show spirit or fiery commitment. She was the lifeless expression of consultant-guided anti-truth.

No question was answered straight and simple. Everything was convoluted and involved extraneous data, so that listeners couldn’t follow the answer and by the end couldn’t remember the question. I am certain government witnesses do this deliberately—the rounded words, long sentences that collapse, the bureaucratic drone—so reporters will fall asleep and fail to file. An hour in Tuesday I expected the TV camera to slowly slide toward the ceiling, with the screen covered in a cameraman’s drool. “Mistakes were made.” “Our security plan was not properly executed.” Yes, you could say that of a story in which a nut with a knife burst into the White House and ran around the ceremonial rooms. Ms. Pierson neglected to mention in her testimony the story that would break shortly after she finished: Secret Service agents in Atlanta a few weeks before had allowed on to an elevator carrying the president a private security man, who reportedly jumped around taking pictures and was later found to be carrying a gun.

Blah Evasion I'm BoredMs. Pierson resigned after bad reviews of her performance. That’s a tragedy in the sense it’s tragic she wasn’t fired.

But does anybody in the government feel it is necessary to be truthful about anything anymore? Does anyone in the federal government ever think about concepts like “taxpayers” and “citizens” and their “right to know”?

Everything sounds like propaganda. That will happen when government becomes too huge, too present and all-encompassing. Everything almost every level of government says now has the terrible, insincere, lying sound of The Official Line, which no one on the inside, or outside, believes. The other day, during the big Centers for Disease Control news conference on the Dallas Ebola case, a man from one of the health agencies insisted in burly (and somehow self-satisfied) tones that the nation’s health is his group’s No. 1 priority. And I thought, just like a normal person, “No, your No. 1 priority is to forestall a sense of panic. To do that you’ll say what you need to say. Your second priority, connected to the first, is to assert the excellence and competence of the agency with which you are associated. Your third priority is to keep the public safe.”

Everyone who spoke was very smooth. “I think ‘handful’ is the right characterization,” said the CDC director to a Wall Street Journal reporter who asked if the sick man had contact with others before he was hospitalized. (That became “up to 100” the next day.) The officials were relentlessly modern-bureaucratic in their language. They have involved all “stakeholders.”

Was the sick man an American or a foreign national? “The individual was here to visit family.” Oh. The speaker’s tone implied he’ll tell us more down the road if he decides we can handle it.

What about those who traveled on the same plane as the man, and which flight was it? “Ebola is a virus. It’s easy to kill if you wash your hands,” said CDC chief Thomas Frieden . You are only infectious once you are sick, not before.

Ebola will not, all agreed, produce a full-fledged American epidemic. “We are stopping it in its tracks in this country,” Dr. Frieden said.

That may be true. But nobody thinks it because government doctors and professionals said it. Americans do not have confidence in what The Officials tell them anymore.

This is not only because we live in a cynical age. In this case it’s because people know the truth always contains uncomfortable elements, and in the CDC news conference very few uncomfortable elements were allowed.

They say the only thing you have to fear is personal contact, but they shy away from clearly defining personal contact. They suggest it has to do with bodily fluids, so you immediately think of the man sneezing next to you on the train. They do not want to discuss the man sneezing next to you on the train.

They did not want to discuss who the sick man was, his nationality, exactly what flight he came in on. They are good to their global masters! Sorry, just reacting like a normal person. There was a persistent sense the professionals had agreed to be chary with information that might alarm America’s peasants and make them violent.

We are locked in some loop where the public figure knows what he must pronounce to achieve his agenda, and the public knows what he must pronounce to achieve his agenda, and we all accept what is being said while at the same time everyone sees right through it. The public figure literally says, “Prepare my talking points,” and the public says, “He’s just reading talking points.” It leaves everyone feeling compromised. Public officials gripe they can’t break through the cynicism. They cause the cynicism.

The only people who seem to tell the truth now are the people inside the agencies who become whistleblowers. They call a news organization, get on the phone with a congressman’s staff. That’s basically how the Veterans Affairs and Secret Service scandals broke: Desperate people who couldn’t take the corruption dropped a dime. What does it say about a great nation when its most reliable truth tellers are desperate people?

Sometimes it looks as if everyone in public life is in showbiz, only showbiz with impermeable employee protections. Lois Lerner of IRS fame planted the question, told the lie, took the Fifth, lost the emails and stonewalled. Her punishment for all this was a $100,000-a-year pension for the rest of her life. Imagine how frightened she was. I wonder what the Secret Service head’s pension will be?

A nation can’t continue to be vibrant and healthy when the government controls more and more, and yet no one trusts a thing the government says. It’s hard to keep going that way.

Questions for the Secret Service

Three questions for Secret Service Director Julia Pierson, testifying this day before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee regarding recent breaches of White House security:

Ms. Pierson, let’s try to lift this story beyond immediate incidents. Just about every establishment and institution in America has seen its public reputation lowered, its standing diminished in the past 25 years or so. Here in Congress, journalism, the law, the academy, the church—all have seen their reputations damaged the past quarter-century or so. But it seems to me almost no reputation has been damaged as much as that of the Secret Service. We used to make movies about them. They were the most disciplined, selfless and professional men. They were Clint Eastwood. Better than that, they were Rufus Youngblood, they were Tim McCarthy, who stood there like a little stone wall the day Reagan was shot and took a bullet. What mystique they had. And now—I’m going to be rude but blunt—they come across as a bunch of mooks. Security breaches, coverups, scandals with prostitutes, someone shoots at the White House and they don’t notice it. I want you to think aloud here to help us. Don’t be defensive, we won’t hold what you say against you. We will stipulate that many members of the Secret Service are heroic, selfless, brilliant. I accept that. But you’ve seen the decline. Ms. Pierson, what happened? Did it happen the past 25 years, or 10 years? What is the biggest reason for the decline of the Secret Service? I give you the rest of my time.

Ms. Pierson, when the Secret Service operated, bizarrely and yet with high effectiveness, under the Treasury Department, the Secret Service worked. That is when it developed its habits and traditions of excellence. That’s when it dazzled. After 9/11, in the great and huge government reorganization that followed, the Secret Service was put into the Department of Homeland Security. And from there, I think, we have seen deterioration and the falling of morale and competence. Am I seeing this right? Being under DHS is the problem, or part of it? In your personal view should the Secret Service be put back under Treasury?

Ms. Pierson, when stories like this become public, we can with a fair degree of confidence predict they will inspire others to attempt a similar act. When a man jumps the fence and gets to the East Room of the White House it alarms the law-abiding and peaceable and will tend to incite copycats, crazy men and extremists. What steps are you taking now—immediately—to at least temporarily beef up protection of the White House, the president and his family?

Republicans Need a Direction They could win by default, but that’s not good enough.

In a year when Republicans are operating in such an enviable political environment, why aren’t their U.S. Senate candidates holding big and impressive leads? Why does it look close? Why are party professionals getting worried?

The Democratic president is unpopular. What progress can be claimed in the economy is tentative, uneven, feels temporary. True unemployment is bad and people who have jobs feel stressed and hammered by costs. Americans are less optimistic than they’ve ever been in the modern era, with right-track/wrong-track numbers upside down. Scandals, war, uncertain leadership—all this has yielded a sense the whole enterprise of the past six years just did not work.

But Republicans aren’t achieving lift-off. The metaphor used most often is the wave. If Republicans can’t make, catch and ride a wave in an environment like this, they’ve gone from being the stupid party to the stupid loser party.

What’s wrong?

An accomplished establishment Republican this week shrugged and noted the obvious: Every race is state-by-state and has its own realities; some candidates prove good and some are disappointing. Another establishment figure, an elected officeholder, observed with satisfaction that Republicans in Washington have done a good job making sure local candidates weren’t nutty persons who said nutty things.

But is that enough? Kellyanne Conway of The Polling Co. says no: “It’s not enough for voters to have a candidate who doesn’t say something controversial. They need something compelling.”

Muscular ElephantThe party’s consultants say it comes down to money: Republicans are raising less than Democrats and need more. But Ms. Conway notes that in 2012, well-funded Republicans George Allen, Connie Mack, Linda McMahon, Josh Mandel and Tommy Thompson all went down to defeat. It’s not all about money.

The question this week is whether the election should be nationalized, lifted beyond the local and given power by clear stands on some agreed-upon national issues. Those who resist say the election has already been nationalized by Barack Obama . His and his administration’s unpopularity are all the unifying force that’s needed.

But put aside the word “nationalized.” Shouldn’t the Republican Party make it clear right now exactly what it is for and what it intends to do?

Here the views of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and much of the Washington-based GOP election apparatus have held sway. If you are explicit in terms of larger policy ideas, you just give Democrats something to shoot at. Don’t give them a target. ObamaCare, the foreign-policy mess, the IRS—these are so unpopular they’re more than enough reason to vote Republican. Don’t give voters a reason not to!

This sounds like the hard practicality of big-time politics, and it has a certain logic. But it doesn’t take into account some underlying realities.

One is the rising air of public crisis. Many voters, especially in the Republican base, feel America is under threat and we are losing our country. They feel they are fighting to save it. In a time of alarm, vagueness doesn’t seem clever but oblivious—out of touch and unaware.

Asecond reality is the GOP’s brand problem. Everyone knows about it and is tired of saying it; the Democrats continue exploiting it because it’s almost all they have. Moreover, history suggests a political brand problem gets resolved only by a vivid figure like FDR or Reagan, who through their popularity and power changed how people saw their parties. Republican politicians can’t sit around waiting for a vivid figure to come along, so they don’t talk about the problem anymore.

The cliché is that Republicans are old, white, don’t like women or science, are narrow, numeric and oppose all modern ways. The cliché probably isn’t as powerful as it used to be because the president has made so many new Republicans, but it’s still there.

But Republicanism right now has a special duty to be dynamic and serious. It has to paint a world of the possible. It has to make people feel that things can be made better. The spirit animating the party should be “This way, we will take that hill and hold it. Together, now, let’s march.” To rouse people you have to tell them your plans.

And it would be especially welcome at this moment. The Democratic Party in the last years of Obama is running on empty, pushing old buttons. To judge by their current campaigns, their only bullets are mischief and malice. The mischief includes a wholly fictional Republican war on women and the malice involves class-mongering and “check your privilege” manipulation. Only the young seem idealistic; older Democrats seem like a sated force.

The Democrats’ reputation is suffering, but the point here is the Republicans’. When you have a poor brand, do you spend all your time saying the other guy is worse? Or do you start rebuilding your reputation? In politics that means saying what you are for, not what you are against, and what you will do, not what the other guy will do if the voters let him.

A third reason to go with the idea of avowed meaning is the suspicion some voters must have that while to vote Democratic this year is to vote for the potential of more trouble, to vote Republican may be a vote for nothing changing or improving very much.

Both parties in Washington use stasis as a strategy. I suspect there are Republicans on the ground who intuit the Republican version of this. Republican inertia was outlined to me this spring, ironically, by a GOP congressman:

The 2010 election, he explained, was about winning the House, don’t rock the boat. Twenty twelve was all about the presidential—again don’t rock the boat, don’t mess things up with anything controversial, win the presidency to effect change. In 2014, he said, it’s all about the Senate—win it, hold the House. Then in 2016 it’s going to be all about the presidential and holding the Senate. In 2018, he said, it will be all about holding Congress for a Republican president or against a Democratic one. Then in 2020 it will be all about the presidential.

After that, he said, we might do something!

His point was that party professionals think the party has to keep winning, so—wait. For what?

Republican political professionals need to get the meaning of things back. Otherwise, if Republicans do take the Senate, their new majority will arrive not having won on the basis of something shared. They will not be able to claim any mandate for anything. That will encourage them to become self-driven freelancers in a very pleasant and distinguished freelancer’s club, which is sort of what the Senate is.

It’s good to win, but winning without a declared governing purpose is a ticket to nowhere.

Some feel a vague list of general stands might solve the problem and do the trick. They think it’s probably too late to do more than that. But there are 6½ weeks before the election, and plenty of voters would be asking for more information and open to changing their minds. In such circumstances, explicit vows are more likely to be taken seriously than airy sentiments.

Republicans need to say what they’re for. They need to make it new and true—not something defensive but something equal to the moment.

The Unwisdom of Barack Obama Is he weak? Arrogant? Ambivalent? Don’t overthink the president.

At this dramatic time, with a world on fire, we look at the president and ponder again who he is. Mr. Obama himself mocked how people see him, according to a remarkable piece this week by Peter Baker in the New York Times. NYT +1.10% “Oh, it’s a shame when you have a wan, diffident, professorial president,” he reportedly said, sarcastically, in a meeting with journalists before his big Syria speech. Zbigniew Brzezinski told Mr. Baker the president’s critics think he’s a “a softy. He’s not a softy.”

Actually, no one thinks he’s a softy. A man who personally picks drone targets, who seems sometimes to enjoy antagonizing congressional Republicans, whose speeches not infrequently carry a certain undercurrent of political malice, cannot precisely be understood as soft.

But we focus on Mr. Obama personality and psychology—he’s weak or arrogant or ambivalent, or all three—and while this is interesting, it’s too fancy. We are overthinking the president.

His essential problem is that he has very poor judgment.

Storm clouds and sunny hillsAnd we don’t say this because he’s so famously bright—academically credentialed, smooth, facile with words, quick with concepts. (That’s the sort of intelligence the press and popular historians most prize and celebrate, because it’s exactly the sort they possess.) But brightness is not the same as judgment, which has to do with discernment, instinct, the ability to see the big picture, wisdom that is earned or natural.

Mr. Obama can see the trees, name their genus and species, judge their age and describe their color. He absorbs data. But he consistently misses the shape, size and density of the forest. His recitations of data are really a faux sophistication that suggests command of the subject but misses the heart of the matter.

You can run down the list. His famous “red line” comment was poor judgment. He shouldn’t have put himself or his country in that position, threatening action if a foreign leader did something. He misjudged the indelible impression his crawl-back would make on the world.

Last month it was the “I don’t have a strategy” statement on the Islamic State. That’s not something an American president attempting to rouse the public and impress the world can say. But he didn’t know.

ObamaCare top to bottom was poor judgment. It shouldn’t have been the central domestic effort of his presidency, that should have been the economy and jobs. He thought his bill could go forward without making Republicans co-own it, thought it would be clever to let Congress write it, thought an overextended and undertalented federal government could execute it. He thought those who told him the website would work were truthful, when he should have been smoking out agendas, incompetence and yes-sir-ism. He shouldn’t have said if you like your doctor you can keep him. That was his domestic red-line comment. It was a product of poor judgment.

The other night, at the end of his Syria speech, he sang a long, off-point aria to the economy. Supposedly it would be ringing and rousing, but viewers looked at each other and scratched their heads. It didn’t belong there. It showed a classic misjudging of his position. The president thinks people are depressed because they don’t understand how good the economy is. Actually right now they are depressed because he is president. It was like Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech. It wasn’t a bad speech, but he wasn’t the person who could give it because voters weren’t thinking malaise was the problem, they were thinking Mr. Carter was. He couldn’t relieve public unhappiness because people had come to think he was the source of it.

Mr. Obama misjudged from day one his position vis-à-vis Republicans on Capitol Hill. He thought they were out to kill him. Some were! That’s Washington. But Republicans in 2009 were more desperate than he understood, and some could have been picked off, because they thought he was the future and they didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history. To get their support on health care he would have had to make adjustments, bend a little so they could play ball without losing all standing and self-respect. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t see their quandary. He allowed them to stand against him with integrity. That was poor judgement!

Libya? Poor judgment. A nation run by a nut was turned into a nation run by many nuts, some more vicious than the dictator they toppled. Russia? The president misread it, which would only have been a mistake, if a serious one, if it hadn’t been for his snotty high-handedness toward those who’d made warnings. To Mitt Romney, in debate, in October 2012: “The 1980s—they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”

He misjudged public reaction to the Snowden revelations, did not understand Americans were increasingly alarmed about privacy and the government.

He can read a poll, but he can’t anticipate a sentiment.

On scandals, and all administrations have them, he says something ringing, allows the withholding of information, and hopes it will all go away. Does Benghazi look to you like it’s going away? Was the IRS’s reputation buttressed by his claims that there wasn’t a “smidgen of corruption” within it, or was its reputation ruined by its stonewalling?

In his handling of the Islamic State the president has been slow to act, slow to move, inconsistent in his statements, unpersuasive, uninspiring. No boots on the ground, maybe boots on the ground but not combat boots, only advisory boots. He takes off the table things that should be there, and insists on weird words like “degrade”—why not just “stop and defeat”?—and, in fact, “ISIL.” The world calls it ISIS or Islamic State. Why does he need a separate language? How does that help?

In another strange, off-point aria, reported by the Times’s Mr. Baker, the president told the journalists that if he were “an adviser” to ISIS, he would have told them not to do the beheadings but to send the hostages home with a note instead. Can you imagine FDR ruminating about how if Hitler wanted to win over Americans he wouldn’t have invaded Poland, he would have softly encircled it and then thrown an unusually boisterous Oktoberfest?

Meanwhile time passes. The president’s own surrogates this week seemed unsure, halting, sometimes confused. A month ago there was a chance to hit the Islamic State hard when they were in the field and destroy not just their arms but their mystique. At this point we are enhancing it. It is the focus of all eyes, the subject of the American debate. Boy do they make us nervous, maybe they’re coming across our borders.

Maybe all this is the president’s clever way of letting time pass, letting things play out, so that in a few months the public fever to do something—he always thinks the public has a fever—will be over. And he will then be able to do little, which perhaps is what he wants.

But none of this looks clever. It looks like poor judgment beginning to end.

The Genocide of Mideastern Christians Americans haven’t suddenly turned interventionist. They’re moved by the Islamic State’s particular evil.

President Obama would have been rocked the past few months by five things. One is the building criticism from left and right about his high need for relaxation—playing golf while the world burns. Another is that he misread the significance and public power of the beheadings of American journalists. Third, he has been way out of sync with American public opinion on Islamic State, which must be all the more galling because he thought he knew where Americans stood on the use of military force. Fourth, with his poll numbers declining (32% approval for his handling of foreign policy, according to The Wall Street Journal and NBC), it has probably occurred to him that he is damaging not only his own but his party’s brand in foreign affairs. (Yes, George W. Bush did the same to his party, but Mr. Obama was supposed to reverse, not follow, that trend.) Fifth, he surely expects he is about to take a pounding from the antiwar left.

Most immediately interesting to me is the apparent change of mind by Americans toward military action in the Mideast. The president’s long-reigning assumption is that a war-weary public has grown more isolationist. But, again according to the WSJ/NBC poll, more than 6 in 10 back moving militarily against Islamic State. Politicians and pundits believe that this is due to the gruesome, public and taunting murders of the U.S. journalists—that Americans saw the pictures and freaked out, that their backing of force is merely emotional.

I think they’re missing a big aspect of this story.

Christian refugees

Christian refugees take shelter in an empty construction site in Erbil, Iraq.

A year ago the American people spontaneously rose up and told Washington they would not back a bombing foray in Syria that would help the insurgents opposed to Bashar Assad. That public backlash was a surprise not only to the White House but to Republicans in Congress, who were—and I saw them—ashen-faced after the calls flooded their offices. It was such a shock to Washington that officials there still don’t talk about it and make believe it didn’t happen.

Why was there such a wave of opposition? In part because Americans had no confidence their leaders understood the complications, history and realities of Syria or the Mideast. The previous 12 years had left them distrusting the American foreign-policy establishment. Americans felt the U.S. itself needed more care and attention. By 2013 there was a new depth of disbelief in Mr. Obama’s leadership.

But there was another, powerful aspect to the opposition.

Evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics who would normally back strong military action were relatively silent in 2013. Why? I think because they were becoming broadly aware, for the first time, of what was happening to Christians in the Middle East. They were being murdered, tortured, abused for their faith and run out of the region. And for all his crimes and failings, Syria’s justly maligned Assad was not attempting to crush his country’s Christians. His enemies were—the jihadists, including those who became the Islamic State.

In the year since, the brutality against Middle Eastern Christians, and Islamic State’s ferocious anti-Christian agenda, has left many Christians deeply alarmed. Jihadists are de-Christianizing the Mideast, where Christianity began.

An estimated two-thirds of the Christians of Iraq have fled that country since the 2003 U.S. invasion. They are being driven from their villages in northern Iraq. They are terrorized, brutalized, executed. This week an eyewitness in Mosul, which fell to Islamic State in June, told NBC News the jihadists were committing atrocities. In Syria, too, they have executed Christians for refusing to convert.

In roughly the past 18 months, all this has broken through in Christian communities, largely by way of Christian media, including Catholic news services and the Baptist press. The story has been all over social media. Pope Francis has denounced what is happening; the Vatican is talking about just-war theory.

Rep. Chris Smith, the New Jersey Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Human Rights, this week called what is happening “a genocide.”

“It is a global phenomenon, but dramatically in the Mideast,” he said.

I told him I thought the journalists’ beheadings had put a public picture on a crisis of which Christians in America have now become aware.

“An emphatic yes, with exclamation points put after it,” he replied.

No one—at least not the United Nations or other international bodies, and not the administration—seems to be keeping official records. Mr. Smith suggested that when people don’t really want you to know the scale of a problem, they don’t gather the numbers. He has pressed both the U.S. government and the U.N. for statistics and specifics—how many Christians have been killed, abused, sent fleeing and from where. “It’s all, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ When they do, it’s threadbare answers that don’t say a whole lot.”

The anguish and indignation of American Christians at what is being done, by Islamic State, to their brothers and sisters in faith is surely part of the reason Americans are backing U.S. action against the terror group.

It would surely also be a misreading of the polls to announce the American public is suddenly “interventionist.” There is no reason to believe they have any appetite for romantic or aggressive forays into invasions, occupations or nation-building efforts. What they want to do—and they wanted to do it last month—is respond to a group that is unusually evil, even by Middle Eastern standards.

There is also no reason to infer from the polls that Americans hold to the illusion that moving on Islamic State would create new order and peace in the Mideast. Those illusions tend to live more in Washington than on-the-ground America. If Islamic State is hit hard enough, it may be killed, but nothing else will be fixed. The Mideast will continue in brutal chaos, but Islamic State, as Islamic State, will be done or at least damaged, and surely that is worth something. At the very least a message will be sent.

If the president were a more instinctive man, or rather if his natural instincts were more in line with those of your average American clinger, he would have moved quickly, sharply and without undue drama. He would have bombed Islamic State when it was a showy army in the field, its fighters driving stolen armored vehicles down highways in the sand, in their black outfits, with their black flags. They are not terrorists hiding in holes and safe houses. They are not doing Internet showbiz from caves, they are seizing and holding territory. They say they are the caliphate, and they intend to expand. They are killing and abusing many, not only Christians. They are something new and deadly.

My guess is two things are not acceptable to the American people. One is the full-scale commitment of scores of thousands of troops to invade and occupy a country. The other is a diffident, confused, unfocused, unserious campaign.

The American people are not suddenly recommitted to a decadeslong drama. They do want to see bad guys taken out. Their timetable, I suspect, would be “Let’s start last month.”

Joan Rivers: The Entertainer

There was nobody like her. Some people are knockoffs or imitations of other, stronger, more vivid figures, but there was never another Joan Rivers before her or while she lived. She was a seriously wonderful, self-invented woman.

She was completely open and immediately accessible. She had the warmth of a person who found others keenly and genuinely interesting. It was also the warmth of a person with no boundaries: She wanted to know everything about you and would tell you a great deal about herself, right away. She had no edit function, which in part allowed her gift. She would tell you what she thought. She loved to shock, not only an audience but a friend. I think from the beginning life startled her, and she enjoyed startling you. You only asked her advice or opinion if you wanted an honest reply.

Her intelligence was penetrating and original, her tastes refined. Her duplex apartment on the east side of Manhattan was full of books in beautiful bindings, of elegant gold things on the table, lacquered boxes, antique furniture. She liked everything just so. She read a lot. She was a doctor’s daughter.

We met and became friends in 1992, but the story I always remember when I think of her took place in June 2004. Ronald Reagan had just died, and his remains were being flown from California to Washington, where he would lay in state at the U.S. Capitol. A group of his friends were invited to the Capitol to take part in the formal receiving of his remains, and to say goodbye. Joan was there, as a great friend and supporter of the Reagans.

That afternoon, as we waited for the plane to land, while we were standing and talking in a ceremonial room on the Senate side, there was, suddenly, an alarm. Secret Service men and Capitol police burst into the room and instructed us to leave, quickly and immediately. An incoming plane headed for the Capitol was expected to hit within minutes. “Run for your lives,” they commanded, and they meant it. Everyone in the Capitol ran toward the exits and down the great stairs. Joan was ahead of me, along with the television producer Tommy Corcoran, her best friend and boon companion of many years.

Down the long marble halls, down the long steps . . . At the bottom of the steps, in a grassy patch to the left, I saw Joan on the ground, breathless. Her high heel had broken, the wind knocked out of her. I’m not going any further, she said to Tommy. Keep going, she said. I should note that everyone really thought the Capitol was about to be attacked.

I stopped to ask if I could help, heard what Joan had said to Tommy and then heard Tommy’s reply: “I’m staying with you.”

“Run!” said Joan. She told him to save himself.

“No,” said Tommy. “It wouldn’t be as much fun without you.” He said if anything happened they’d go together. And he sat down next to her and held her hand and they waited for the plane to hit.

Needless to say it didn’t; some idiot flying an oblivious governor had drifted into restricted airspace. I don’t know if they ever had any idea how close they’d come to being shot down.

But that was a very Joan moment, her caring about her friend and him saying life would be lesser without her.

*   *   *

I was lucky to have known her. I owe it to Steve Forbes, the publisher and former presidential hopeful who, with his family, owned a chateau in France near the Normandy coast. It was the family’s custom once a year to invite friends and associates for a long weekend, and in the summer of 1992 I went, and met Joan. Talk about a life force.

We all stayed in beautiful rooms. Joan amused herself making believe she was stealing the furniture. It rained through the weekend, which Joan feared would make Steve and Sabina Forbes blue, so she organized a group of us to go into town to a costume-rental place so we could put on a show. All they had was French Revolution outfits, so we took them, got back to our rooms, and Joan and I wrote a play on what we announced were French revolutionary themes. Walter Cronkite, another guest, was chosen by Joan as narrator. I think the play consisted mostly of members of Louis XIV’s court doing Catskills stand-up. It was quite awful and a big success.

The highlight of the weekend was a balloon lift, a Forbes tradition—scores of huge balloons in brilliant colors and patterns would lift from the grounds of the chateau after dawn and travel over the countryside. It was so beautiful. I stood and watched, not meaning to participate, and was half pushed into a gondola. By luck Joan was there, full of good humor and information on what we were seeing below.

We held on hard as we experienced a hard and unplanned landing on a French farm. We were spilled out onto a field. As we scrambled and stood, an old farmer came out, spoke to us for a moment, ran into his farmhouse and came back with an old bottle of calvados. He then told us he hadn’t seen Americans since D-Day, and toasted us for what America had done for his country. No one was more moved than Joan, who never forgot it.

*   *   *

I last saw her in July. A friend and I met her for lunch at a restaurant she’d chosen in Los Angeles. It was full of tourists. Everyone at the tables recognized her and called out. She felt she owed her fans everything and never ignored or patronized an admirer. She smiled through every picture with every stranger. She was nice—she asked about their families, where they were from, how they liked it here. They absolutely knew she would treat them well and she absolutely did.

The only people who didn’t recognize Joan were the people who ran the restaurant, who said they didn’t have her reservation and asked us to wait in the bar, where waiters bumped into us as they bustled by. Joan didn’t like that, gave them 10 minutes to get their act together, and when they didn’t she left. But she didn’t just leave. She stood outside on the sidewalk, and as cars full of people went by with people calling out, “Joan! We love you!” she would yell back, “Thank you but don’t go to this restaurant, they’re rude! Boycott this restaurant!” My friend said, “Joan, stop it, you’re going to wind up on TMZ.”

“I don’t care,” she said. She felt she was doing a public service.

We went to a restaurant down the street, where when she walked in they almost bowed.

She wouldn’t let a friend pay a bill, ever. She tipped like a woman who used to live on tips. She was hilarious that day on the subject of Barack and Michelle Obama, whom she did not like. (I almost didn’t write that but decided if Joan were here she’d say, “Say I didn’t like Obama!”)

She was a Republican, always a surprising thing in show business, and in a New Yorker, but she was one because, as she would tell you, she worked hard, made her money with great effort, and didn’t feel her profits should be unduly taxed. She once said in an interview that if you have 19 children she will pay for the first four but no more. Mostly she just couldn’t tolerate cant and didn’t respond well to political manipulation. She believed in a strong defense because she was a grown-up and understood the world to be a tough house. She loved Margaret Thatcher, who said what Joan believed: The facts of life are conservative. She didn’t do a lot of politics in her shows—politics divides an audience—but she thought a lot about it and talked about it. She was socially liberal in the sense she wanted everyone to find as many available paths to happiness as possible.

*   *   *

I am not sure she ever felt accepted by the showbiz elite, or any elite. She was too raw, didn’t respect certain conventions, wasn’t careful, didn’t pretend to a false dignity. She took the celebrated and powerful down a peg. Her wit was broad and spoofing—she would play the fool—but it was also subversive and transgressive. People who weren’t powerful or well-known saw and understood what she was doing.

She thought a lot about how things work and what they mean.

She once told me she figured a career was like a shark, either it is going forward or it is dying and sinking to the ocean floor. She worked like someone who believed that, doing shows in houses big and small all over the country, hundreds a year, along with her cable programs, interviews, and books. She supported a lot of people. Many members of her staff stayed for decades and were like family. Because of that, when I visited the hospital last week, I got to witness a show-business moment Joan would have liked. A relative was scrolling down on her iPhone. “Listen to this,” she said, and read aloud something a young showbiz figure who had been lampooned by Joan had just tweeted. She said it was an honor to be made fun of by such a great lady. “Joan will be furious when she sees this,” said the relative, shaking her head. “She won’t be able to make fun of her in the act anymore.”

It was Joan who explained to me 15 or 20 years ago a new dimension in modern fame—that it isn’t like the old days when you’d down a city street and people would recognize you. Fame had suddenly and in some new way gone universal. Joan and a friend had just come back from a safari in Africa. One day they were walking along a path when they saw some local tribesmen. As the two groups passed, a tribesman exclaimed, “Joan Rivers, what are you doing here?!”

She couldn’t believe it. This is Africa, she thought. And then she thought no, this is a world full of media that show the world American culture. We talked about it, and I asked, beyond the idea of what might be called Western cultural imperialism, what else does the story mean to you? “It means there’s no place to hide,” she said. They can know you anywhere. At the time, the Internet age was just beginning.

Her eye was original. Twenty years ago, when everyone was talking about how wonderful it was that Vegas had been cleaned up and the mob had been thrown out, Joan said no, no, no, they are ruining the mystique. First of all, she said, those mobsters knew how to care for a lady, those guys with bent noses were respectful and gentlemen, except when they were killing you. Second, she said, organized crime is better than disorganized crime, which will replace it. Third, the mobsters had a patina of class, they dressed well and saw that everyone else did, so Vegas wasn’t a slobocracy, which is what it is becoming with men in shorts playing the slots in the lobby of the hotel. The old Vegas had dignity. She hated the bluenoses who’d clean up what wasn’t mean to be clean. No one wanted Sin City cleaned up, she said, they wanted to go there and visit sin and then go home.

*   *   *

Joan now is being celebrated, rightly and beautifully, by those who knew and loved her. They are defining her contributions (pioneer, unacknowledged feminist hero, gutsy broad) and lauding the quality of her craft.

But it is a great unkindness of life that no one says these things until you’re gone.

Joan would have loved how much she is loved. I think she didn’t quite know and yet in a way she must have: You don’t have strangers light up at the sight of you without knowing you have done something.

But we should try to honor and celebrate the virtues and gifts of people while they’re alive, and can see it.

She was an entertainer. She wanted to delight you. She wanted to make you laugh. She succeeded so brilliantly.

The World Needs a Clarion Obama can’t lead a coalition if nobody can follow his thinking.

It is a muddle, a murk and a desperate-looking thing, the president on the subject of the Islamic State.

The Islamic State is the junior varsity. No, it is a “cancer.” We will “degrade and destroy” it. No, we’ll render it “a manageable problem.” It’s all so halting, herky-jerky and, for a great power, embarrassing. Ich bin ein Limiter of Spheres of Influence. Mr. Obama has been severely criticized and soon will change the story with a new statement. Actually to a degree he already has, in his joint op-ed piece Thursday with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Our countries “will not be cowed by barbaric killers.” That’s good, not being cowed, but what does it mean and for how long?

Obama on the mountainWhat is extraordinary in this moment of high, many-fronted peril is that the president’s true views and plans are not only unclear to the world but a mystery to his countrymen.

You want to think he is playing a cool, long game, that there’s a plan and he’s acting on it. He’s holding off stark action to force nations in the region to step up to the plate. The comments of the Saudis and the Emiratis are newly burly. Good, they have military power and wealth, let them move for once. He is teaching our Mideast friends the U.S. is not a volunteer fire department that suits up every time you fall asleep on the couch smoking. In the meantime he is coolly watching new alliances form—wasn’t that the Kurds the other day fighting alongside the Iranians?

Mr. Obama’s supporters frankly hope that there’s a method to the madness, that he is quietly, behind the scenes and with great subtlety pulling together a coalition that will move. But this is more hope than knowledge, and a coalition would need a leader. You have to wonder if potential coalition members won’t think twice about following such an uncertain trumpet. They have reason to doubt Mr. Obama’s leadership, and it is not all due to his current, contradictory statements. Once again, the Syria “red line” episode shows itself an epochal moment. The president’s decision not to act after Syria used poison gas on its citizens showed other leaders of the world that this president will make a vow—a public yet personally tinged one, of great consequence—and feel free, when the moment reaches crisis levels, not to come through. It wasn’t that he looked dishonest, it was that he looked unserious. With the hard human beings who run the world, that is deadly.

People say Mr. Obama hasn’t spoken on the Islamic State with sufficient “passion,” but the world at the moment probably doesn’t need more passion. He needs to speak with clarity, conviction and most of all credibility. Politicians always think they have to reach people’s hearts. They have to reach their minds.

Some questions:

Is the administration’s foreign-policy apparatus as rudderless, ad hoc and faux-sophisticated as it looks?

Is the president starting to fear, deep down, that maybe he is the junior varsity?

Who at this key moment is the president talking to? The world of American foreign-policy professionals is populated by some brilliant and accomplished men and women who’ve been through the wars. Is he seeking their counsel?

The problem is really not that the president, as he said, does not yet have a strategy. It is that the world doesn’t know and the country doesn’t know how, deep down, he thinks about the Islamic State. What is its historical meaning and import? Is it something new that requires new thinking? Is it a game-changer in the region? Does it, alone or in league with others, actually threaten the United States? Or are the threats more like bluster as it attracts new members from throughout the world and work to hold the ground it’s seized?

What is the president internally committed to doing? Is he dodging a decision or has he made one?

What has more than five years of White House experience taught him? All presidents learn on the job, but because he tends to blame others for his woes and, like many of his predecessors, avoids public reflection on his mistakes, we don’t know how events have shaped his thinking. For instance: Deciding against his political nature to be militarily proactive and topple Moammar Gadhafi of Libya in 2011 was, pretty clearly, a mistake. Does he think so? A monstrous little dictator was removed, which left an opening for people who were more monstrous still, who murdered our ambassador, burnt our consulate in Benghazi and have now run us out of Tripoli. What did the president absorb from this that now affects his thinking?

Mr. Obama loudly insisted Bashar Assad of Syria must go, then did nothing to help his opponents. Assad was thus turned from an often dangerous and duplicitous adversary to an embittered and enraged formal foe. Was that progress? How does it fit into the current drama? Does Mr. Obama fear that if the U.S. goes after the Islamic State in northern Syria it will strengthen Assad’s position? If so, should it be the most crucial and immediate fear? Isn’t the Islamic State a more dangerous and pressing threat? If it is, can a deal be made with Syria for the U.S. to move militarily for a limited time within the relevant part of that nation?

Does Mr. Obama conflate “go back to Iraq” with “move decisively against ISIS through bombing, with limited troops on the ground guiding and gathering intelligence”? Does he believe these are the same thing? If so, why?

An overriding question: To what extent will the passage of time erode the U.S.’s ability to move effectively and decisively? Does the chance of effectiveness recede as the days pass? Is the administration working with its eye on the clock?

Does Secretary of State John Kerry speak for the president, and is he reflecting the president’s views when he speaks? Mr Kerry has been both strong and resolute in his condemnations of the Islamic State. One wonders, more than ever now, the extent to which he is involved in a bit of freelancing, going forward with relative independence from White House political hands. If he is, good for him. But NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell wondered this week if the difference in comments between Mr. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey—all of whom have been more informative and more verbally hawkish than Mr. Obama—constituted an internal administration conversation that is now being played out in public. That would be interesting, to say the least, if it’s true.

You also have to wonder if Vice President Joe Biden’s remark on the Islamic State—”We will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice”—was also part of a private conversation gone public. Mr. Biden is irrepressible and likes to say ringing things, but his remark came across to me as a foreign-policy version of his famous 2012 comment that he was “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage. It was his way of forcing the issue and pushing for an action he thought both advantageous and correct. Three days later, the president announced that he had reached the same conclusion.

American Diversity and the Wild West On a visit to the country, a city dweller reflects on the nation.

Moran, Wyo.

Tenderfoot is in big sky country. On the drive from the airport to the ranch, the Tetons, a range of great splendor and dignity that Tenderfoot had thought were two mountains called Grand, are spread before her. It is dusk. To the left the Snake River curls softly against the road. To the right, open fields, working ranches, herds of buffalo. In the air the scent of sage. The sky is huge, a dome of softening blue. All this is expected—this is how the West looks—yet the real thing startles and overwhelms. You stare dumbly at the wonder of it.

“God’s country,” her host says, not as a brag but with awe still in his voice after more than 20 years here.

Tenderfoot’s host, a friend of many years, a substantial and numeric man, tells her Wyoming facts. There are fewer people in this state than any other. (“They must be lonely,” she thinks.)

Tenderfoot doesn’t really like to be in a place where there aren’t a lot of . . . witnesses. She’s from the city and knows the canyons of downtown, the watering holes of the theater district. She knows her Brooklyn, her Long Island, her Jersey, is a walker in the city and a lost rube in the country. She is here because she loves her friends and will go far to see them. She does have a relationship with the American West and does in fact love it, but it is the West as mediated by John Ford, Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry. She doesn’t really know the real one.
Enlarge Image

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, Wyoming Getty Images

Lower Falls

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, Wyoming

“I’ll fill you in on the bears,” her host says. They’ve been coming in closer, charging hikers down hills and sauntering across property. Tenderfoot nods in a way she hopes looks offhanded, like someone who knows the facts on the ground, the lay of the land, the curve of the bend. In that tone, she asks which are worse, the black bears or the brown ones, and, um, which have the claws. “The grizzlies can kill you,” she is told. She receives this with equanimity. “I will never leave my room,” she thinks.

The next day the conversation again turns to bears, and her host reminds everyone: “You go for a hike, just bring your bear spray.”

“Um,” says Tenderfoot, “do you spray it on yourself like bug spray? Or do you spray it on the bear?”

Another guest, sympathetically: “You spray it toward the bear. Like Mace.”

“That’s what I thought,” Tenderfoot says.

She is game for riding and asks for a horse that is short, lame and stupid. They give her an Appaloosa named Grumpy. He is huge and gray and looks like something the conquistadors rode. Tenderfoot is ready to love him. She pats his thick neck and says sweet things like, “You and me, Grump.” They go forward and it is beautiful—the stately lope, the soft, intelligent snorting—and she is barely offended when he tries to wipe her off on the side of a barn.

Later, loping slowly up a trail by a creek, past aspen and cottonwood, sage and pine trees, past spruce and willows and Indian paintbrush, she sees something on the ground.

She is now already speaking economically, like a Westerner.

“Big twig.” she says.

“Actually that’s a rattlesnake,” says her guide. This happens in Tenderfoot’s imagination but might as well be real.

Grumpy is in charge and knows his trails, barely stumbles. She likes the easy sway. It is mesmeric. “This is how the cowboys did it,” she thinks, “this is how they put up with the boredom and peace.” She looks down at Grumpy’s massive neck and thinks of . . . Cole Porter. “If Grumpy falls down here I’ll shoot from the stirrups with a flock of the foot and tumble in the opposite direction.” Being a writer, she knows she will write of the fall and need the names of things. “Is that a ravine or a valley?” she calls out to her friends. Silence. “It’s a stream bed,” somebody says.

In the coming days she would hike, mostly because she doesn’t want her friends to call her Tenderfoot Lazybones. She will announce one night that she went on a 7.2-mile hike up a mountain and saw a blurry furry thing 10 feet tall and scared it away with a sound and a stick. It is perhaps closer to the truth that it was a half-mile amble on a hill and she saw a squirrel, but nobody presses her. And anyway that squirrel was big.

In between walking, staring at the stream and the sunflowers, walking through the tack room and staring at horses, Tenderfoot reads a wonderful book called “Wyoming Folklore,” a collection of oral histories from old-timers who, in the 1930s, were asked for their memories of the wild Wyoming where they’d grown up. Their stories were gathered by young writers working for the Federal Writers Project. It was a brilliant use of tax dollars because it was an act of real conservation: If these histories hadn’t been written down they’d have been lost to us all forever.

The stories, told by non-garrulous people in old age, tell of a lost, brute, beautiful world, and the tough, hardy, crazy people who lived in it: cowboys, miners, French peddlers, Irish railway men, German surveyors, desperadoes, drunken soldiers. Parents fleeing disappointment who couldn’t settle down and dragged their hungry children through the wilderness looking for the perfect spot. Indian medicine men, mad prospectors, loggers, serial killers. The storms that bore down from nowhere and left 15 feet of snow. The Cheyenne on the warpath, the U.S. Army on the warpath, towns that rose up against soldiers and their rough ways. Cattle everywhere. Flash floods turning creeks into raging rivers. “It really rained in those days,” said an old cowboy. Lightning made cattle panic and stampede over cliffs.

The legends of buried treasures, of lost mines, of gold nuggets large as wheat kernels. The sudden, raging wildfires. “Just as far as we could see east and west, just one inferno of flames,” said one pioneer. A change in the wind was death to all. No firefighters; only a stream or a river could check a blaze.

The cold and privation, the sheer endurance it took to live in old Wyoming, in the wild, wild West.

At meals Tenderfoot tells stories of what she’s read, but her friends already know them. Still, they are beautiful and powerful to her, and give rise to a thought she’d had before.

People say Americans are by nature isolationists, an odd thing to say of a people who came from everywhere on earth and stay in touch with everywhere. Maybe the truth is that America is so vast, so varied, contains so many different cultures and histories, which in turn give rise to different assumptions and even ways of being, that it has been the work of more than two centuries for America just to know itself. Europe is all bunched together, of course they know each other. We are spread out on a vast continent. it takes a while to take it all in. We’re not uninterested in other countries, we just have so many nations right here.