Russia, the Big Picture

People sometimes ask “What would Reagan think?” and “What would Reagan do?” I don’t understand this and tend not to play. How would I know, how would you? He was a man of his time and place who responded to the great questions of his day. He could be surprising—actually he was both constant and surprising. The famous cold warrior who spiked defense spending worried fairly constantly about nuclear weapons and was willing to gamble all to get rid of them at Reykjavik.

Also he was human, and you can never calculate with complete certainty what a human would do.

Mostly I steer clear because the question is both frivolous and, around the edges, sad. “What would FDR do?” “What would JFK do?” “Only Lincoln’s wisdom will suffice.” Boo hoo. This is nostalgia as an evasive tool. You’re alive, what would you do?

But the past few weeks I’ve been witness to many discussions of Russia at gatherings of American diplomats, journalists and historians, and taken part in interviews with experts and foreign-policy thinkers. I am coming to conclude that almost everyone is missing the headline and focusing instead on a factoid in the seventh or tenth graf. Journalists pound diplomats with questions about U.S. sanctions, as if they believe the right one will do the trick and solve the problem. Diplomats dilate on the last Kerry-Lavrov meeting, or the next, or the credibility and potential impact of the Kiev government’s most recent accusation.

One sophisticated observer will muse aloud about the Russian government for the first time really starting to clamp down on the Internet, while another will mention offhandedly the high state of Russian nationalist feeling—and anti-U.S. feeling—among politicians and the press in Moscow. But they don’t seem to understand the implications of their observations.

The American leadership class has taken on a certain ship-of-fools aspect when it comes to Russia. They are missing the essential story.

So the other night I was walking from a gathering when a writer and academic, a smart, nice man, turned to me and said, softly, “How do you think Reagan would view what is going on? How do you think he’d see all this?” And I surprised myself by answering.

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I said that what people don’t understand about Reagan is that his self-conceptualization in the first 40 years of his life, meaning the years in which you really become yourself, was as an artist. Not a political leader or an economist, not a geo-strategist, but an artist. I saw this when I went through his papers at the Reagan Library. As a boy and young man he was a short story writer, a drawer of pictures, then an actor. He acted in college, went into broadcasting and then went on to act professionally. He paid close attention to script, character, the shape of the story. He came to maturity and middle age in Hollywood, which was full of craftsmen and artists, and he respected them and was one of them.

He cared about politics and came to see himself as a leader when he was immersed in Screen Actors Guild politics, and later led that union.

But he, to himself, was an artist.

And the thing about artists is they try to see the thing whole. They try to get the big shape of things. They’re creative, intuitive. Someone once said a great leader has more in common with an artist than an economist, and it’s true. An artist has imagination, tries to apprehend the full sweep of what’s happening. An actor understands what moment you’re in in the drama.

And so with that as context this, I said, this is how I think Reagan would view the moment we’re in:

The Soviet Union fell almost a quarter-century ago. It was great news, a victory for civilization. That fall was followed by something: a series of governments trying to maintain stability and pick up the pieces, turning toward democracy, toward modernity, really going for a non-state-dominated economy. Russian leaders were to some significant degree accommodating to the West, which had vanquished them. They engaged in reconstruction on many fronts, reinvention too. They moved in varying degrees toward Western values.

Again, it lasted almost a quarter century.

Now it is over.

That history has ended and something new has begun. Now we are in an era so new we don’t even have a name for it. Maybe we’ll call it “Putinism,” maybe “Cold War II,” who knows—but it’s brand new and it’s different from the past not only in tone but in nature, character and, presumably, intent.

Vladimir Putin is in control. The state is increasingly entwined with him. We don’t know how much autonomy he has, as Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations noted the other day. But we have to assume it is significant. We know he is not only in charge but popular, and the tougher he is, the more popular he appears to be. (A real question: Will Russian democracy itself survive this new era? We will find out in the next few years.) A spirit of nationalism is rising, and that nationalism may contribute in time to a feeling of blood in the air. The Russian government is clamping down on the press, on free speech.

The Russian government isn’t trying to please us or work with us anymore. Mr Putin has formally set himself as our antagonist. Something big got broken here. It will have world-wide implications, and be a major foreign-policy challenge for the United States in the coming years

But we are in a new time and will have to plan anew and think anew.

That is how I think the artist formerly known as Reagan would judge what’s happening. He’d see it clear and figure it from there. He wouldn’t think it was about sanctions and tweeted insults.

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I would add that to create a new strategy we will not only have to see Mr. Putin clearly. We will have to consider—honestly—what steps and missteps, what assumptions and attitudes, led to this moment not only there, but here. We will have to figure out how the new moment can be nonviolently countered. This in turn will require being honest about ourselves—who we are, what we need and what we want—and our allies, and their particular character and imperatives. It would be good to remember it is not 1950. That, truly, was another world.

It is my opinion that Reagan wouldn’t be alarmist because there’s no use in alarm. At the same time he’d be serious as a heart attack about what has happened and what it implies. Being serious would not involve putting down Russia as a merely regional power, as President Obama recently did. No nuclear power is merely regional. If Putin were merely regional, he wouldn’t have been able to save Obama’s bacon in Syria.

I do think Reagan would be startled—that isn’t quite the word, because it doesn’t encompass a sense of horror—that it clearly won’t be the American president leading the West through the start of the new era, but a German chancellor.

That, actually, would have taken him aback.

Sen. Feinstein’s Awakening

Here again is the problem of surveillance professionals operating within a highly technologized surveillance state: If they can do it they will do it. If they are able to take an action they will sooner or later take it, whether or not it’s a good thing, even whether or not it is legal. Defenders of the surveillance state as it is currently organized and constituted blithely argue that laws, rules, traditions and long-held assumptions will control or put a damper on the actions of those with the power to invade the privacy of groups or individuals. They are very trusting people! But they are wrong. You cannot know human nature (or the nature and imperatives of human organizations) and assume people will refrain from using the power at hand to gain advantage. And so we have to approach surveillance state issues not from a framework of “it’s OK, we can trust our government” but “it’s not going to be OK, government agencies give us new reasons each day to doubt their probity, judgment and determination to adhere to the law.”

Today’s case: Sen. Dianne Feinstein has accused the CIA of compromising and trifling with computers being used by Senate staffers in an investigation of the agency. Here is CIA Director John Brennan’s denial.

What is startling in the story is that it’s not surprising. The CIA is under Senate investigation, in this case regarding its now-defunct secret interrogation and detention program. You can argue whether the investigation is or is not historically justified, politically motivated or operating fully on the up and up. (Unnamed CIA officials had previously told the Washington Post that, in fact, Senate investigators had themselves accessed documents to which they were not entitled.) Feinstein is suggesting the CIA, an executive agency, used its technological capabilities to thwart, confuse or disrupt the legal investigative actions of the legislative branch. If she is correct, that would be a violation of the laws preventing the CIA from conducting domestic surveillance. And of course it would constitute a violation of the separation of powers.

But again, it’s not surprising. If it is true it is very bad, but not a shock. We have been here before, as Ron Fournier notes. But this story will likely make a difference, and wake some people up on the Hill. Dianne Feinstein of California has been a U.S. senator for more than 21 years and has been a vocal defender of the U.S. surveillance apparatus since it came under attack with the emergence of Edward Snowden. She views surveillance from a national-security perspective. As chairman, for five years, of the Senate Intelligence Committee she is more aware than most of the security threats and challenges under which America operates. There is a sense she has viewed the alarms and warnings of antisurveillance forces as the yips and yaps of kids who aren’t aware of the brute realities she hears about in classified briefings. Over the past decades she has been exposed to a large number of intelligence professionals who are first rate, America-loving and full of integrity, and so worthy of reflexive respect. Her loyalty would be earned and understandable.

But now she, or rather her committee’s investigators, have, she believes, been spied upon. Which would focus the mind. She is probably about to come in for a great deal of derision. She should instead be welcomed into the growing group of those concerned about the actions and abilities of the surveillance state. It could not have been easy for her to say what she’s said. She is right to feel and share her intellectual alarm.

The Ideologue vs. the Children New York’s new mayor attacks charter schools, proving his critics right.

What a small and politically vicious man New York’s new mayor is. Bill de Blasio doesn’t like charter schools. They are too successful to be tolerated. Last week he announced he will drop the ax on three planned Success Academy schools. (You know Success Academy: It was chronicled in the film “Waiting for Superman.” It’s one of the charter schools the disadvantaged kids are desperate to get into.) Mr. de Blasio has also cut and redirected the entire allotment for charter facility funding from the city’s capital budget. An official associated with a small, independent charter school in the South Bronx told me the decision will siphon money from his school’s operations. He summed up his feelings with two words: “It’s dispiriting.”

Some 70,000 of the city’s one million students, most black or Hispanic, attend charter schools, mostly in poorer neighborhoods. Charter schools are privately run but largely publicly financed. Their teachers are not unionized. Their students usually outscore their counterparts at conventional public schools on state tests. Success Academy does particularly well. Last year 82% of its students passed citywide math exams. Citywide the figure was 30%.

These are schools that work. They are something to be proud of and encourage.

A group of charter school students

A group of charter school students rally in support of charter schools outside the Capitol in Albany, N.Y.

Mr. de Blasio’s move has caused considerable personal anxiety and widespread public anger. The Daily News on Thursday called the nearly 200 Success Academy students who now have no place to go the mayor’s “educational orphans.” A reporter spoke to distraught families. “I wanted the best for my daughter,” said Rakim Smith, 40, a cable technician from Harlem whose daughter Dymond is a sixth-grader at Success Academy Harlem Central Middle School. “Now they’re trying to take it away.” “I don’t know where else I can send my son so that he can have the same level education,” said Fatoumata Kebe of the Bronx, whose 11-year-old son, Ousmane, goes to Harlem Central.

On Thursday Mr. de Blasio went on a sympathetic radio station and couldn’t have been clearer about what is driving his actions. Charter schools may help the poor and those just starting out in America, they may give options to kids who’ve floundered elsewhere, but a lot of them are supported by rich people. There is a “strong private-sector element” in their funding, he said. The mayor agreed with host Ebro Darden that “a lot” of charter schools are funded by big business: “Oh yeah, a lot of them are funded by very wealthy Wall Street folks and others.” When Mr. Darden and co-host Peter Rosenberg suggested that a “campaign” to portray the mayor as anti-charter-school was also funded by big business, Mr. de Blasio, as the New York Post noted, didn’t disagree. “I think you’re providing a keen political analysis there.”

Clever people usually try to hide their animus. This one doesn’t care if you know how he feels about that “element.”

It is true that wealthy and public-spirited New Yorkers, out of loyalty to the city and its future generations, give a lot of money, care and time—the last, time, doesn’t get noted enough—to create and help run many of the city’s charter schools. They should be thanked for this, every day. Again, they do it because they care about children who would otherwise be locked into a public-school system that doesn’t work.

But the people who run the public-school system that doesn’t work—the one where you can’t fire teachers who sexually prey on students and principals who don’t even show up for work, which is to say the public schools run by the city’s huge and powerful teachers union—don’t like the charter schools. And they are the mayor’s supporters, a significant part of his base.

The very existence of charter schools is an implicit rebuke to the public schools. It means they are not succeeding, and something new must be tried. That something new won’t be perfect—no charter school is, and some are more imperfect than others—but people still line up to get into them. And there’s something to the wisdom of crowds. When a school exists for the students, you can tell. When it exists for the unions, you can tell that too.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is not politically inept, made clear this week that he will stand with the charter schools. Mr. de Blasio had come to Albany Tuesday on what is called lobbying day. He brought more than 1,000 people and held a rally to press state lawmakers to increase city income taxes to pay for prekindergarten education. Mr. Cuomo, who had already told Mr. de Blasio that he backs pre-K but not a tax hike, decided to hold his own rally. His crowd, full of charter school students, teachers and families, was much bigger than de Blasio’s. Mr. Cuomo had fiery words. “They say it’s cold out here, but I don’t feel cold, I feel hot. I feel fired up,” he said. “You are not alone. . . . We will save charter schools.”

This was centrist and politically clever, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Mr. Cuomo showed not all Democrats are on the same page on education reform, and some are passionately for it.

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We close with a little red meat because there’s something in this story—frightened children, cold political operators—that gets our blood up.

Nice liberals who back school reform are saying some very strange things about what Mr. de Blasio is doing. They’re being awfully understanding. They’re saying you have to appreciate that compared with his political base, the mayor is really staking out a middle ground. He is not going as far as the progressive left wants him to. They want to block all charters. They’re disappointed! The teachers union doesn’t want any charter expansion. And they’re his base!

It is not the job of nice liberals to make excuses for pols who take a good thing from kids just to satisfy a political agenda. It is not the job of nice liberals to forgive a politician acting in a brutish way, throwing poor children from hard circumstances out of good schools.

It’s not the job of liberals to explain that away. It’s their job to oppose it, because this move against charter schools is an opening feint, a showing of mood, and a sign of things to come

The nice liberals of New York are sounding on this very much like frightened French aristocrats in 1792: “You have to understand, Marat is pretty ideological and we’re lucky he’s only cutting off our ears and nose and not our heads.” No, he came for their heads later.

You say,: “He’s not Marat, he’s just a slob.” That’s true. But even slobs need to be opposed now and then.

In this move more than any so far, Mr. de Blasio shows signs he is what his critics warned he would be—a destructive force in the city of New York. When a man says he will raise taxes to achieve a program like pre-K education, and is quickly informed that that program can be achieved without raising taxes, and his answer is that he wants to raise taxes anyway, that man is an ideologue.

And ideologues will sacrifice anything to their ideology. Even children.

America and the Aggressive Left Half the country feels—and is—beset by government. That’s not progress.

The constant mischief of the progressive left is hurting the nation’s morale. There are few areas of national life left in which they are not busy, and few in which they’re not making it worse. There are always more regulations, fees and fiats, always more cultural pressure and insistence.

The president brags he has a pen and a phone. He uses the former to sign executive orders. It is not clear why he mentioned the latter since he rarely attempts to bring legislators over to his side. Who exactly is he calling? The most hopeful thing he’s done is signal this week what he’ll be up to after he leaves. He will work with young minority men. Good. He is a figure of inspiration to them, and they need and deserve encouragement. This also leaves us understanding for the first time the true purpose of his so far unsuccessful presidency: to launch a meaningful postpresidency. I’m glad that’s clear.

But to American morale. Here one refers to recent polling data. Gallup in December had 72% of those polled saying big government is a bigger threat to the future than big business and big labor—a record high. This may be connected to ObamaCare, an analyst ventured. Rasmussen this week had only 32% of those polled saying the country is headed in the right direction, with 61% saying we’re on the wrong track. Both numbers fluctuate, but the right track is down two points since this time last year and the wrong track up three. Gallup also had only 39% of respondents saying they saw America in a positive position, with less than half thinking it will be better in five years.

None of these numbers are new, exactly, as they reflect long-term trends. But they never lose their power to startle. The persistent blues, the lack of faith, the bet that things won’t get better—it just doesn’t sound like America.

In the batting cageWe are suffering in great part from the politicization of everything and the spread of government not in a useful way but a destructive one. Everyone wants to help the poor, the old and the sick; the safety net exists because we want it. But voters and taxpayers feel bullied, burdened and jerked around, which again is not new but feels more intense every day. Common sense and native wit tell them America is losing the most vital part of itself in the continuing shift of power from private to public. Rules, regulations, many of them stupid, from all the agencies—local, state, federal—on the building of a house, or the starting of a business. You can only employ so many before the new insurance rules kick in so don’t employ too many, don’t take a chance! Which means: Don’t grow. It takes the utmost commitment to start a school or improve an existing one because you’ll come up against the unions, which own the politicians.It’s all part of the malaise, the sclerosis. So is the eroding end of the idea that religious scruples and beliefs have a high place that must culturally and politically be respected. The political-media complex is bravely coming down on florists with unfashionable views. On Twitter Thursday the freedom-fighter who tweets as @FriedrichHayek asked: “Can the government compel a Jewish baker to deliver a wedding cake on a Saturday? If not why not.” Why not indeed. Because the truly tolerant give each other a little space? On an optimistic note, the Little Sisters of the Poor haven’t been put out of business and patiently await their day in court.

I think a lot of people right now, certainly Republicans and conservatives, feel like a guy in a batting cage taking ball after ball from an automatic pitching machine. He’s hitting the ball and keeping up and suddenly the machine starts going berserk. It’s firing five balls a second, then 10. At first he tries to hit a few. Then he’s just trying to duck, trying not to get hurt.

That’s how people feel about the demands and dictates. The balls keep coming at them politically, locally, culturally. Republicans and conservatives comprise at least half the country. That’s a lot of people.

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In the dark screwball comedy that is ObamaCare, the Congressional Budget Office revealed last month the law will provide disincentives to work. Don’t worry, said Nancy Pelosi, people can take that time and go become poets and painters. At first you think: Huh, I can do that, I’ve got a beret. Then you think: No, I have to earn a living. Then you think, poor hardworking rube that you are: Wait a second, I’m subsidizing all this. I’ve been cast in the role of Catherine de Medici, patroness of the arts. She at least had a castle, I just get a bill!

The IRS is coming up with new rules making it harder for independent groups to organize and resist the constant messages and claims of government. Meanwhile it warns taxpayers they must be able to prove they have insurance coverage when they file their 2014 taxes or they’ll face a fine (or tax, or fee), which the government has decided to call a “shared responsibility payment.” It is $95 per adult and $47.50 per child to a maximum of $285, or 1% of your household income, whichever is higher. People already enraged by canceled coverage, higher premiums, huge deductibles, lost doctors and limited networks, fume. And the highest-ranking Democrat on Capitol Hill, Majority Leader Harry Reid, goes to the floor of the Senate to say of the ObamaCare horror stories that “all of them are untrue.” They’re “stories made up out of whole cloth” spread by “the multibillionaire Koch brothers.”

Imagine that—you have real problems caused by a bad law, and Mr. Reid tells you that what you are experiencing in your own life is a lie made up by propagandists. He sounded like Lenin. There is no cholera in the new Russia.

The NSA is a real and present threat to your privacy, HHS actually never has to come up with a true number on ObamaCare enrollments or costs, and at the EPA no one talks anymore about why Al Armendariz, a top regional administrator, felt free to brag in a 2010 speech that his “philosophy of enforcement” could be compared with the practice by ancient Roman soldiers of crucifying random victims. When it surfaced, he left the agency. Did his mind-set?

People feel beset because they are. All these things are pieces of a larger, bullying ineptitude. And people know, they are aware.

Conservatives sometimes feel exhausted from trying to fight back on a million fronts. A leftist might say: “Yes, that’s the plan.”

But the left too is damaged. They look hollowed out and incoherent. Their victories, removed of meaning, are only the triumphs of small aggressions. They win the day but not the era. The result is not progress but more national division, more of a grinding sense of dislike. At first it will be aimed at the progressive left, but in time it will likely be aimed at America itself, or rather America as It Is Now. When the progressive left wins, they will win, year by year, less of a country.

Kerry in Kiev

John Kerry’s stance and statement in Kiev today were good—clear, strong and calibrated.

He made U.S. sympathies clear.

He didn’t bluster.

He was plain about the facts on the ground as he ascertained them. “It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further,” he said. It has. Vladimir Putin has suggested marauding fascist anti-Semites threaten the peaceful. Kerry said the only thing people on the streets of Kiev feel threatened by is “the potential of a Russian invasion.”

But Kerry’s remarks were also somewhat summoning toward Russia, mapping out a kind of off-ramp from the crisis—Russian forces should return to their barracks, Russia should agree to an increased number of international observers. “We are not looking for some major confrontation.” Putin should “step back and listen carefully.” The U.S. wants to see the crisis “de-escalated.”

He pledged Ukraine’s interim government concrete and specific assistance in the form of loan guarantees and various kinds of technical help in the banking and other economic sectors.

Kerry’s trip and statements had a tactical purpose within an emerging overall strategy: to isolate Russia diplomatically and politically in what used to be called the court of world opinion.

It is something between daring and cheeky to go into a potential foreign war zone and address the aggressor from there. But Kerry’s words were sober, and the trip seemed a success. Here we add time will tell, in case history records a jacked-up Putin decided to invade eastern Ukraine as he watched Kerry speak.

Throughout this crisis Mr. Kerry has been more impressive than his president. His words have commanded more serious attention; he’s the one journalists have watched to get a sense of coming U.S. policy. Kerry appears to be operating within a range of freedoms that his predecessor did not assume, or dare. He gives off an air of knowing the White House needs him and could not afford to lose him. And if that’s what he’s thinking, he’s right: They can hardly afford more discombobulation or disorder. So—he seems to have a lot of independence.

Hillary Clinton had to prove, for personal and political reasons, that she could get along inside, play well with the other children, and be loyal to something besides the Clinton project. That was her agenda. For her, to get along was to go along as foreign policy came out of the White House. Kerry at the end of his career has no such imperatives. He only has to demonstrate that he is what he takes himself to be, a serious man looking to his nation’s interests. Anyway, you get a sense as you watch him that when the youngs in the White House call to give him talking points he doesn’t jump and say yes.

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President Obama too had a statement on Ukraine today. He seemed to be trying to catch up with his secretary of state and project a sense of command. (Interestingly, his statement began before the secretary’s had ended, so the cable networks had to cut away from Kerry.) People who insist on their centrality to a drama are rarely at the center of the drama. Obama seemed to be trying to fix on a line regarding the crisis: Russia’s invasion shows Russia’s weakness. That may be true, but I’m not sure it’s helpful to suggest to a man like Putin that he’s really a 98-pound weakling.

A cavil about Kerry’s statement: It was cluttered a bit at the top with personal emotionalism about how he feels about what he is seeing, how he feels about various aspects of the crisis. Sharing their feelings is what U.S. diplomats now think is necessary to convey real engagement and sincerity: I’m so upset, my heart is exploding and will soon deposit clumps of tissue all over your unmarked uniform.

They should cut it out. They should also stop tweeting their emotional reactions to events. They’re diplomats. They’re supposed to be grownups. They’re supposed to be mature.

I suspect they do it because they believe they are talking to an ignorant and emotional world. (It is also possible they do it because they are themselves ignorant and emotional.) But what they do only encourages ignorance and emotionalism. And in any case their audience is the informed and aware, some of whom are capable of critical thinking.

All of this is a reflection of the age of narcissism: My feelings, my emotions—me, me, me. Do they think the world is impressed? Or is the world, full of people who every day use a dozen platforms to share the urgency of their feelings, secretly impressed by intelligence, knowledge and logic? Discuss, but not emotionally.

Viva Rubio

What a great, myth-destroying statement from Marco Rubio, on the floor of the U.S. Senate yesterday afternoon, on the facts about Cuba and their connection to events in Venezuela.

We have pressed in these parts for American political figures to speak clearly and with moral confidence about American sympathies in various international disputes. Rubio’s speech is honest political indignation successfully deployed.

Late last month Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa came back from a week-long trip to Cuba full of the wonders he’d seen. In a meeting with reporters he spouted inanities that were clichés a quarter-century ago: Cuba has fabulous health services, everyone can read. Yesterday Harkin decided to haul his inanities onto the floor of the Senate. Rubio heard what he’d said and followed him on the floor soon after.

Rubio pointed out Cuba has fabulous health services only if you believe a totalitarian government’s health statistics, its people can read only what that government allows them to read. They are an abused people in an oppressed culture.

What Rubio was speaking of is the moral meaning of things and the need for America to recognize and address the moral meaning of things. America should not stand mute when presented with political dramas in other nations, particularly when they occur in our own hemisphere. We have a voice. We should use it. If we don’t show our sympathies, who will? If we do not articulate our values and beliefs, who will?

What to do in the future about Cuba—what relations to have with it and policies to adopt toward it—is the subject of legitimate debate. How to approach and respond to what is happening in Venezuela is a matter of debate. But you can’t begin that debate with fan fiction. You begin it with facts and go from there.

If you don’t get the facts right, you’ll never get the policy right. And it does the world no good to see a great power fallen into relentless, mealy-mouthed obfuscation. That only adds to the slump-shouldered, depressed feeling that a lack of clarity always brings.

Rubio’s statement may make a bigger impression on the Republican base than he perhaps expected, and the pundit class may start to see him again as a 2016 force. An observation: Everyone in national politics worries about getting the right speech text, the right words. But Rubio got the words and meaning right through notes and pictures, not a prepared text. Cesar Conda, Rubio’s chief of staff, said the senator had intended to speak that day on Venezuela, but included Cuba because he wanted “to set the record straight.”

Whose Side Are We On? America can take a clear stand without intervening in Ukraine.

A great confusion has set in about what American political figures should and should not say when confronted with violent political events in other countries. Exemplifying the confusion, as he does on so many issues, is President Obama.

Kiev is in crisis. Protesters have taken up arms to fight the government, whose security forces fire into the crowds. The government says dozens have been killed; unconfirmed reports suggest the number is more than a hundred, with many hundreds wounded. At issue is whether Ukraine will tug West or East. The protesters, with broad public support, want to align their country more closely with Europe. They don’t want Russian economic and political dominance, Russian corruption, Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. They want to push away from all that. Which of course is their right.

Mr. Putin sets himself as the strongman, the Last Czar. What he wants to do is hold on to what he sees as his asset base, and keep Ukraine, with all its economic potential, within Russia’s sphere of influence.It’s all very dramatic and nobody knows what will happen. If the protests continue, spread and intensify, President Viktor Yanukovych may well fall. He’s already bleeding political support. He may declare a state of emergency and formally call in the military, which could trigger civil war. What would civil war in a modern, technologized, militarized, quasi-Western state look like? No one knows. Mr. Putin could send Russian troops. He’d pay a heck of a price in world opinion, which he’s courted so assiduously with the costly Sochi games. But he sent troops to Georgia in 2008.

Europe and America can do little beyond considering, threatening and imposing economic and political sanctions against the Ukrainian government. But it’s all very high stakes and carries big implications for the future. So shouldn’t we be making it clear where we as a nation stand? Shouldn’t we make clear where our sympathies are?

The world is watching. Part of the story in Ukraine is that the people are rebelling against their elites, which have cozied up to Russia for their own purposes. We won’t be seeing less of this kind of thing in the future but more. Don’t we want to be understood to be on the right side of that battle?

I think our leaders are now so anxious about appearing to support entangling America in another conflict that they’ve become afraid to voice full-throated support for those who fight for principles completely in line with our own—the right of people to choose their own economic and governmental arrangements, and their right to resist any illegitimate limiting of their freedoms.

We have always stood for those things. Isn’t this a good time to make it clear again?

Ukraine's Independence Square

Protesters clash with police in Ukraine’s Independence Square on Feb. 20.

The Higher Reticence is, I suppose, intended to show how sophisticated and peaceable we are. But it doesn’t look peaceable, it looks weak. It is one thing to be militarily prudent, it is another to be, in expressing our sentiments, timorous and detached.Here is what Mr. Obama said Wednesday, as the moment approached crisis in Kiev: The U.S. holds the Ukrainian government “primarily responsible” for restoring peace. “We expect peaceful protesters to remain peaceful.” The U.S. is “monitoring very closely the situation.” The Ukrainian military should “not step into what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians.” The U.S. will continue to “engage with all sides.”

With all due respect, this was not so much calibrated as meaningless, crouching and process-driven. Which side are we on?

The president then warned there will be “consequences” if people “step over the line.” This sounded like a man who is peripheral to the drama insisting he is very, very relevant. Is this like the “red line” in Syria that Mr. Obama warned Bashar Assad he’d best not cross, and he crossed it, and nothing happened?

It is embarrassing when the president makes statements like this. He is like the father who poses on the bottom of the stairs and says in a deep voice, “Don’t make me come up there!” And for a moment there’s silence and then the kids erupt in giggles. Because there’s no price to pay if he comes up there, and because he doesn’t come up.

I thought, as he spoke, that he is destroying the American brand in the world.

It is particularly important now for us to show the people of Ukraine, and of Europe, that America is not some exhausted shell of itself with no adherence to anything larger than the daily concerns of its welfare state, but still a nation with meaning. That it still stands with those who risk all for greater freedom, that it cares. That it is not left mute by fantasies of a “reset” with Russia that Moscow itself derides. “You got it wrong,” the Russian foreign minister told an embarrassed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she gave him the famous button that incorrectly translated the word “reset.” He seemed to enjoy her discomfort. Last June, Mr. Putin was theatrically rude to Mr. Obama at a joint press conference, turning from him like a bored student who knows his professor isn’t marginally capable of operating in the real world. It reminded me of something a diplomat who has dealt with him said. What Mr. Putin longs for is a Nixon with whom he can do business. Instead he has Mr. Obama, for whom he appears to have little respect.

*   *   *

Part of leading—just part, but a true part—is talking.

America circa 1945-89 did not send in troops to liberate the Warsaw Pact countries and lift the Iron Curtain. But it consistently made clear whose side it was on and what it stood for, and its insistent clarity on these points, especially in the 1980s, ultimately helped liberate those nations.

Democrats seem essentially uninterested in the drama in Kiev. Maybe they think it’s just another distraction from the minimum wage. But Republicans have gotten all bollixed up in the past 12 years of wars, and they’re still concussed by the telephone uprising in which their constituents overwhelmed the Capitol switchboard to say they didn’t want a war in Syria. It has left some of them feeling whiplashed, defensive and fearful of being misunderstood.

But you can’t lead when your greatest fear is that you’ll be misunderstood. Conservatives who understandably and legitimately want no more military interventions have forgotten the power of articulated encouragement. That means saying what side you’re on and why, and what principles you back.

In this case they should stand with the people in Independence Square in Kiev just as much as their predecessors stood with the people of the Warsaw Pact.

Just because it doesn’t seem there’s much you can do doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot you can say—and in the saying, show to the world that your country, for all its woes, limits and distractions, still has a beating heart.

Sen. Rob Portman said the other day: “I think we need to stand with people who are supporting democracy and freedom.” That, he said, is our tradition, our history.

It is. We should stick with it. And not only for the world but for ourselves, to remember who we are.

Our Decadent Elites

Watching Season 2 of “House of Cards.” Not to be a scold or humorless, but do Washington politicians understand how they make themselves look when they embrace the show and become part of its promotion by spouting its famous lines? Congressmen only work three days a week. Each shot must have taken two hours or so—the setup, the crew, the rehearsal, the learning the line. How do they have time for that? Why do they think it’s good for them?

“House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.

Or maybe they’re just stupid.

But it’s all vaguely decadent, no? Or maybe not vaguely. America sees Washington as the capital of vacant, empty souls, chattering among the pillars. Suggesting this perception is valid is helpful in what way?

I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as . . . actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes.

It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town. But I’m not sure it shows that.

We’re at a funny point in our political culture. To have judgment is to be an elitist. To have dignity is to be yesterday. To have standards is to be a hypocrite—you won’t always meet standards even when they’re your own, so why have them?

*   *   *

I wonder if the titans of Wall Street understand how they look in this.

At least they tried to keep it secret. That was good of them!

They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical.

All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it?

And all of it feels so decadent.

No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”

And it is all about the behavior of our elites, our upper classes, which we define now in a practical sense as those who are successful, affluent and powerful. This group not only includes but is almost limited to our political class, Wall Street, and the media, from Hollywood to the news divisions.

They’re all kind of running America.

They all seem increasingly decadent.

What are the implications of this, do you think?

They’re making their videos, holding their parties and having a ball. OK. But imagine you’re a Citizen at Home just grinding through—trying to do it all, the job, the parenthood, the mowing the lawn and paying the taxes. No glamour, all responsibility and effort. And you see these little clips on the Net where the wealthy sing about how great taxpayer bailouts are and you feel like . . . they’re laughing at you.

What happens to a nation whose elites laugh at its citizens?

What happens to its elites?

Seasonal Reflections

This afternoon there’s nothing to do but snow haiku. My attempts at 5, 7, 5:

Full fat flake fell far
To sleep on the rude pavement.
Grraaawwwr. The shovel. Run!

Snowflake: distinctive,
Unique. Liquefies, blends. A
Loss, but less lonely

All New York today
Is slush. Slip, fall, “Have a hand!”
We shyly love mess

Snow meets us, observes,
Turns gray and thick in protest.
It is a critique.

Dr. Zhivago
Cried “Tanya” not “Lara” when
Fevered. Oh poor man.

You can do this too
On a cold slushy day in
February. Go.

Eighty-four degrees
Can only mean winter
In SoSoSoHo

(The last one is from my editor, who’s in South Florida.)


I am catching up on “Girls,” which is on HBO on Sunday nights and is often compared to “Sex and the City.” They’re identical in main subject matter, four girls in New York looking for life, but they’re different in interesting ways. In “Sex and the City” Samantha was looking for sex, Charlotte sought love with the right sort of man, Carrie wanted a particular man and to make sense of the world through her work, and Miranda was in search of the locus of the resentments that caused her chronic unhappiness.

All had adventures along the way. There was an emphasis on glamour.

In “Girls,” Hannah wants fame, Marnie wants status, Jessa wants to be cool at any cost, and Shoshanna wants to be normal but doesn’t know what normal is or looks like and is constantly confused by her friends’ cues.

On “Sex and the City” they had careers but were not precisely careerist. On “Girls” they want careers but have no demonstrated capabilities.

On “Sex and the City” the subtext was friendship. In “Girls” the subtext is competition. It is a truer show in a material sense, but a colder one. People aren’t really nice to each other. There’s a sense of grieving over something that isn’t quite named. There’s little emphasis on glamour.

The differences in the tone and mood of the two shows is explainable in part by the fact that the characters in “Sex” were in their 30s and the characters in “Girls” are in their 20s and just out of school. They’re more lost, less fully formed. They’re trying to get a start on who they will become but can’t gain purchase because they don’t yet know who they are.

But watching, I thought the show’s creators were saying, or simply reflecting in their work, that young and academically credentialed girls now are a little more lost, a lot less fully formed than young women in past eras. The great recession is a quiet presence. It’s hard to get a job; sometimes Hannah acts as if she’s scrounging for food. The parents of the characters are mostly affluent flakes who wouldn’t have taught their kids much beyond the idea of rising.

“Sex and the City” had an air of rebellion. “Girls” is living in the middle of what the rebellion wrought.

Reliving History—and Learning From It What Diane Blair’s papers tell us about the Clintons, and why people preserve their archives.

All the Northeast is covered in snow, and the sound and clamor of Washington is muffled. The federal government took a day off; the news is full of weather. Not a bad time to ponder why people do what they do—more specifically, why witnesses to history often take notes on what they see and hear, and in time leave their papers to universities and libraries. Obviously we’re keying off this week’s story of Diane Blair, a close friend of Hillary Clinton, who died in 2000 and whose papers were given by her husband to the University of Arkansas. There they were kept sealed until 2010. An enterprising reporter for the Washington Free Beacon, Alana Goodman, took a look and found a small trove of journal entries and memos that add texture to our understanding of the Clinton era. Which, it occurs to me, may some day be referred to as the first Clinton era, but that’s another column.

Some were surprised Blair’s papers existed and were given to a public institution. She was smart and loyal, an intimate, and some of what she wrote casts her friend in a poor light. But some of it casts her in a good light. Blair’s note-taking doesn’t seem to me disloyal to a friend, but loyal to history. You owe your friends loyalty, but you owe history something too, if you are privileged to travel within it for a time. And history gets little help from discretion.Regarding the note-taking, you might ask, “Isn’t it enough just to live it? Why write it down?” The answers there are human:

To keep it: to capture your time in history as it happened. To remind yourself it’s real.

To understand it: to order it as you write and try to make sense of it.

To reflect on it. To suggest through what you include what mistakes in attitude or action were made, what challenges met.

And again, to tell history what happened. To cast light, provide context, give a deeper feel.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Bill Clinton

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Bill Clinton in 1999.

A separate question is why people leave their papers behind. They don’t have to. They could keep and then burn them; they could leave them to a family member and have that person or his descendants decide how to dispose of them. Or they could give them to an institution that wants them, that will ensure their physical safety and make them available to scholars and journalists down the road.Again, history has its claims, but things get human here, too. When you leave an institution your archive you’re saying, “I was alive—this is proof,” and, “I was successful—here is the evidence.” Stephen Enniss is director of the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas, which houses extensive collections of manuscripts, individual archives and historical material. I asked him why people leave their papers. “It’s a plea for posthumous life,” he said. We want to believe our efforts had meaning. “The notion that our papers might be kept suggests the institution has granted a kind of status to the work—it will be studied in future years. By implication your life has been of significance.”

When Mr. Enniss worked at Emory University, there was an Irish poet whose papers were going to the school. The poet kept a box by his desk and threw in whatever he’d just written or read. “Every time a box got full, he’d seal it and send it in,” Mr. Enniss recalls. “I’d open it. I’d find a jacket mixed in in one, a pair of eyeglasses in another. After a few years I realized it was as if I was creating a surrogate figure of the poet himself.”What do we learn of Mrs. Clinton from the Blair papers? Not much that close observers don’t already know. A small mystery is what was left in the papers by accident or happenstance, and what by design. Was what appears to be a romantic note from Bill Clinton something of value with which Blair could not part, or a clue left for history’s Sherlocks ?

*   *   *

Blair was not an operative or a tough guy, but a trusted friend. She wasn’t Dave Powers or Bebe Rebozo, uncritically and unquestioningly serving a superior. Blair was an equal. She comes across as a person Hillary Clinton talked to in order to more clearly hear and define who Hillary Clinton was—that is, in order to see and understand herself.

From Mrs. Clinton there’s an always-startling pugnacity and aggression. Sen. Sam Nunn, she says within Blair’s hearing, “should be unmasked as a fraud.” “HC urging hard ball.” “HC still in despair that nobody in WH tough enough and mean enough.” People “trying to destroy them.”

The Clintons are always “getting killed.” “HC on treadmill, how furious she is.” “HC furious at speechwriters.” “Is trying to work through her anger.”

Mrs. Clinton often boasts about her toughness. After her husband’s impeachment, Blair has Hillary observing it “drives their adversaries totally nuts, that [the Clintons] don’t bend, do not appear to be suffering.” On Beltway pundits: “We’ve rendered them irrelevant.” People often “need to get the message bigtime.” “They should have their noses rubbed into it.”

They were a rough bunch, or at least a colorful and sometimes histrionic one. When Bill Clinton is considering a Supreme Court choice, a supporter warns him that if one prospect even thinks “about messing with Roe, what Lorena Bobbitt did to John would look like nothing.”

Four observations.

First, the Blair papers remind us the Clintons in their early days in the White House were much like the Obamas. They didn’t know Washington and were taken aback by its meanness and mayhem. They thought it was something personally directed against them. Their reaction in turn was outsize. They thought, essentially, that any means necessary were justified in fighting the opposition’s wickedness. They didn’t understand wickedness was par for the course. In both cases their simple lack of sophistication in this area warped the politics of their era.

Second, the Clintons were of the Democratic generation that disdained Chicago’s first Mayor Richard Daley, whose administration they literally fought in the streets. He was rough, tough, the machine. The Clintons rose and went on to become . . . rough, tough, a machine. In politics as in life you can become what you hate.

Third, the Blair papers remind us that in the past quarter-century the office of the presidency has become everyone’s psychotherapy. There is an emphasis on the personality, nature, character and charisma of the president. He gets into dramas. He survives them. He is working out his issues. He is avenging childhood feelings of powerlessness. He is working through his ambivalence at certain power dynamics. He will show dad.

History becomes the therapist The taxpayer winds up paying the therapist’s bill.

This wouldn’t be so bad—it would actually be entertaining!—if the presidency were not such a consequential role. People can lose lives when presidents work through their issues. This Endless Drama of the Charismatic President is getting old. And dangerous.

Finally, the Blair papers are interesting, but don’t expect much more. Word in Clintonland will have gone out: Ditch the papers. Have a bonfire. Or see that they’re sealed until 2066.