America’s Decadent Leadership Class Putin doesn’t respect them, and they don’t like half the American people.

It is quite dreadful and a showing of the gravest disrespect that, if U.S. intelligence agencies are correct, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has inserted himself into America’s presidential election. And it could not have deeper implications.

If Russia is indeed behind the leaks of the emails of Democratic Party operatives Mr. Putin may have many reasons, as he often does, but the most frightening would be that he views the current American political leadership class as utterly decadent and unworthy of traditional diplomatic norms and boundaries. And, thinks, therefore, it deserves what it gets.

Why would he find them decadent—morally hollowed out, unserious? That is the terrible part: because he knows them.

President Vladimir Putin

President Vladimir Putin

Think of how he’s experienced them the past few years. Readers of these pages know of the Uranium One deal in which a Canadian businessman got Bill Clinton to help him get control of uranium mining fields in Kazakhstan. The businessman soon gave $31 million to the Clinton Foundation, with a pledge of $100 million more. Uranium One acquired significant holdings in the U.S. A Russian company moved to buy it. The deal needed U.S. approval, including from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

While it was under consideration the Clinton Foundation received more money from Uranium One. Bill Clinton got a $500,000 speech fee. Mrs. Clinton approved the deal. The Russian company is now one of the world’s largest uranium producers. Significant amounts of U.S. uranium are, in effect, owned by Russia. This summer a WikiLeaks dump showed the State Department warning that Russia was moving to control the global supply of nuclear fuel. The deal went through anyway, and the foundation flourished.

Peter Schweizer, who broke the Uranium One story, reported in these pages how Mrs. Clinton also pushed for a U.S.-Russian technology initiative whose goals included “the development of ties between the Russian and American people.” Mrs Clinton looked for U.S. investors and found them. Of the 28 announced “key partners,” 60% had made financial commitments to the Clinton Foundation. Even Russian investors ponied up.

But the research coming out of the initiative raised alarms: U.S. military experts warned of satellite, space and nuclear technology transfers. The FBI thought the Russian partners’ motive was to “gain access to classified, sensitive, and emerging technology.” WikiLeaks later unearthed a State Department cable expressing concern about the project. Somehow, said Mr. Schweizer, the Clinton State Department “missed or ignored obvious red flags.”

What would Mr. Putin, knowing all this and inferring Mrs. Clinton’s real priorities, conclude about the American political system and its major practitioners? Would he feel contempt? Might he toy with them?

As for Donald Trump, we don’t know, because he has not released his tax returns, what ties if any he has with Russia. There are charges that Trump businesses are entangled with powerful Russian financiers. We know some of his top advisers had business ties to Russia or affiliated nations and leaders.

Again, what might Mr. Putin think of this? Might he amuse himself with mischief, even to the point of attempting to hack the election returns? We’ll see.

But nothing is more dangerous than this: that Mr. Putin and perhaps other world leaders have come to have diminished respect for the morality, patriotism and large-mindedness of our leaders. Nikita Khrushchev had a rough respect for JFK and his men and that respect, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, helped avert nuclear war. Mikhail Gorbachev was in the end half-awed by Ronald Reagan’s goodness and idealism; the world knew George H.W. Bush and respected his integrity, and so he was able to build coalitions that were real coalitions, not just names. Now, whoever wins, we are in a different place, a lesser and more dangerous one.

*   *   *

On the latest groping charges: We cannot know for certain what is true, but my experience in such matters is that when a woman makes such a charge she is telling the truth. In a lifetime of fairly wide acquaintance, I’ve not known a woman to lie about sexual misbehavior or assault. I believe Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey, and I believe the women making the charges against Mr. Trump in the New York Times. The mainstream media of the United States is in the tank for the Democratic nominee, to its great and destructive shame: They add further ruin to the half-ruined reputation of a great American institution. That will make the country’s future harder and more torn up. But this story, at least as to the testimony of its central figures, does not appear to be an example of that.

*   *   *

Here I would like to say a word for the spectacular illusions under which American voters once were able to operate. You used to be able to like your guy—to admire your candidate and imagine unknown virtues he no doubt possessed that would be revealed in time, in books. Those illusions were beautiful. They gave clean energy to the engine of our politics. You can’t have illusions anymore. That souring, which is based on knowledge and observation as opposed to mere cynicism, is painful to witness and bear. The other day a conservative intellectual declared to her fellow writers and thinkers: “I’m for the venal idiot who won’t mechanize government against all I hold dear.” That’s some bumper sticker, isn’t it? And who has illusions about Mrs. Clinton? No one.

*   *   *

The big fact of the week, however, has to do with these words: They don’t like us. The Democrats, progressives and left-liberals who have been embarrassed by the latest WikiLeaks dump really hate conservatives, or nonleftists. They don’t like half the people of the country they seek to control! They look at that half with disdain and disrespect. Their disdain is not new—“bitter clingers,” “basket of deplorables.” But here it’s so unashamed and eager to express itself.

A stupid man from a leftist think tank claimed the most “powerful elements” in the conservative movement are Catholic. “They must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations,” he wrote. Mrs. Clinton’s press aide Jennifer Palmieri responded: “I imagine they think it is the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion. Their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they become evangelicals.”

When I read that I imagined a conversation with my grandmother, an immigrant who was a bathroom attendant at the Abraham & Straus department store in Brooklyn. Me: “Grandma, being Catholic is now a step up. It means you’re an aristocrat! A stupid one, but still.” Grandma, blinking: “America truly is a country of miracles.”

Here’s what you see in the emails: the writers are the worst kind of snobs, snobs with nothing to recommend them. In their expression and thoughts they are common, banal, dumb, uninformed, parochial.

I don’t know about you but when people look down on me I want them to be distinguished or outstanding in some way—towering minds, people of exquisite sensibility or learning. Not these grubbly poseurs, these people who’ve never had a thought but only a sensation: Christians are backward, I saw it in a movie!

It’s the big fact of American life now, isn’t it? That we are patronized by our inferiors.

The Kaine Impunity America needs seriousness, sincerity, normality. How could he not have known that?

We are unsettled. The big thing looms and so many are still groping toward a decision. We would all like it to be over. I think of the farmer who treed a coon and then climbed up to shake it out of the branches. The coon turned out to be a wild lynx, which bit him and scratched and put up a heckuva fight. The farmer’s friends heard his screams and gathered below with guns, but no one could get a clear shot. Finally the farmer shouted: “Just shoot up here amongst us, one of us has got to get some relief.”

It will be over in a month, and you’ll know what you’ve done.

Hillary Clinton is leading. Donald Trump is scrambling to regain ground.

Senator Tim Kaine

Senator Tim Kaine

The past week, three significant pieces of news. The first was Mr. Trump’s 3 a.m. tweet on Alicia Machado. Actually that happened a week and a half ago, but this week the thought really settled in: He’s going to do that as president. Once he tweeted crazy things a lot and then he sort of slowed and then he was sort of winning and then the mad 3 a.m. tweet told you: No, it will happen as president, only it will be more serious then. This is the week his friends, staff and supporters realized it will never stop.

The second was Bill Clinton’s admission that ObamaCare is a mess, “the craziest thing in the world.” At a rally in Michigan he said “you’ve got this crazy system” in which millions more people have insurance, but “the people who are out there busting it, sometimes 60 hours a week, wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half.” Later he tried to walk it back but you can never walk back an obvious truth. Mr. Clinton grew up in Arkansas in the days when America wasn’t crazy. He was alive to the realities of those struggling to keep everything afloat. Through ObamaCare they lost out. Barack Obama sees things more abstractly: Portions of the middle class may have experienced some dislocations, but progress is never easy. Mr. Clinton was speaking, knowingly or not, of the unprotected who bear the weight of the elite’s experiments.

Congratulations to him for veering into public candor. In another world what he said would be front-page news every day.

The third was the vice presidential debate. Tim Kaine has been smacked around for his performance, but not nearly enough.

His criticisms of Mr. Trump came immediately and were uniformly personal. “Donald Trump always puts himself first.” “I can’t imagine how Gov. Pence can defend the insult-driven, selfish, me-first style of Donald Trump.”

He famously and rudely interrupted both Mr. Pence and moderator Elaine Quijano. Three sentences into a Pence assertion that Mr. Trump is a successful businessman, Mr. Kaine blustered in: “And paid few taxes and lost a billion a year.” Mr. Pence brought up the Clinton Foundation accepting contributions from foreign governments; Mr. Kaine cut him off: “You are Donald Trump’s apprentice.” Mr. Pence says he wants to finish his sentence; Mr Kaine: “Finish your sentence.”

“He needs to stop interrupting,” wrote a journalist on Twitter, in real time. Actually he needed to stop being a rude little rhymes-with-witch. And he needed to show he has some idea what time it is.

His strategy was clear: Block all thought, reduce everything to prefabricated one-liners. He has a weird, un-grown-up regard for the power of sarcasm. Supposedly this would all play well with the common man. No. Mr. Kaine was like the snotty midlevel manager of a box store who comes in after a fight with the wife and starts yelling that your bathroom breaks are too long.

His antics kept the debate from developing into a series of thoughts that could be understood and absorbed. This was a destructive act that kept serious policy from being seriously discussed.

He made it cheaper than it had to be.

Everyone says vice presidential debates aren’t that important, and everyone must be right, but this is how it changed the race: Now there are two Democrats to dislike, not just one. And you can imagine Mike Pence—calm, sly sometimes, occasionally evasive—as a plausible president.

The real sin in Mr. Kaine’s performance had to do with his not knowing what time it is. After the past 16 months the nation craves in its politics seriousness, sincerity, sheer normality. This is a time that most desperately demands a little class from its nonpresidential candidates. Voters need to see that not everyone in politics is a sleazy manipulator, a mere aggressor, a game player. Do our national candidates and their staffs not know what a relief it would be to see dignity and maturity? Do they not understand that the nation needs a break from the two weirdos at the top of the ticket and yearns to be inspired and reassured by the bottom? How could Mr. Kaine not know that?

We end with the debate’s redeeming feature, which surprisingly had to do with God.

Ms. Quijano noted that both candidates are Christians who have spoken of faith’s role in their lives. She asked each to speak of a time when he struggled to balance personal faith against public policy.

Mr. Kaine said he grew up in a Catholic home, was educated by Jesuits, attempts to follow the teaching of the church in his personal life. When he was running for governor he was, in accordance with his understanding of his faith, against the death penalty. But Virginia had a law on the books mandating capital punishment for particularly heinous crimes: “I had to grapple with that.” He was “attacked pretty strongly” in the campaign. He decided to tell voters he would not change his views but would uphold the law. He was elected, and allowed executions to go forward: “That was a real struggle.”

It sounded believable and even heartfelt, though his ultimate decision—do what is politically popular—was convenient.

Mr. Pence too claimed his faith “is at the very heart of who I am.” His issue was not the death penalty but abortion. He is pro-life and ran as such from the start of his career. Why? “I would tell you that for me the sanctity of life proceeds out of the belief [in] that ancient principle . . . where God says, ‘Before you were formed in the womb, I knew you.’ ” He was saying God is real, and God made human life, so it is sacred: “It all for me begins with cherishing the dignity, the worth, the value of every human life.”

I rarely hear politicians, even pro-life ones, talk like that. It was startling, and lovely.

He spoke of partial-birth abortion. He knew, he said, that Mr. Kaine is personally against abortion, but “the very idea that a child that is almost born into the world could still have their lives taken from them is just anathema to me.” Mr. Kaine responded that he and Mrs. Clinton support Roe v. Wade, while Mr. Pence would overturn that decision. It went round and round.

But for a moment there things got serious, even sincere. Imagine that, in 2016.


The Politics of ‘The Shallows’ What ails American democracy? Too much information and too little thought.

What impact has the modern media environment had on the 2016 campaign? I know that’s a boring sentence, but journalists and politicians talk about it a lot, journalists uneasily and politicians with frustration. The 24/7 news cycle and the million multiplying platforms with their escalating demands—for pictures, video, sound, the immediate hot take—exhaust politicians and staff, and media people too. Everyone is tired, and chronically tired people live, perilously, on the Edge of Stupid. More important, modern media realities make everything intellectually thinner, shallower. Everything moves fast; we talk not of the scandal of the day but the scandal of the hour, reducing a great event, a presidential campaign, into an endless river of gaffes.

The need to say something becomes the tendency to say anything. It makes everything dumber, grosser, less important.

Throw me a lifeline!This year I am seeing something, especially among the young of politics and journalism. They have received most of what they know about political history through screens. They are college graduates, they’re in their 20s or 30s, they’re bright and ambitious, but they have seen the movie and not read the book. They’ve heard the sound bite but not read the speech. Their understanding of history, even recent history, is superficial. They grew up in the internet age and have filled their brainspace with information that came in the form of pictures and sounds. They learned through sensation, not through books, which demand something deeper from your brain. Reading forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect. It provides a deeper understanding of political figures and events.

Watching a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis shows you a drama. Reading about it shows you a dilemma. The book makes you imagine the color, sound, tone and tension, the logic of events: It makes your brain do work. A movie is received passively: You sit back, see, hear. Books demand and reward. When you read them your knowledge base deepens and expands. In time that depth comes to inform your work, sometimes in ways of which you’re not fully conscious.

In the past 18 months I talked to three young presidential candidates—people running for president, real grown-ups—who, it was clear to me by the end of our conversations, had, in their understanding of modern American political history, seen the movie and not read the book. Two of them, I’ve come to know, can recite whole pages of dialogue from movies. (It is interesting to me that the movies our politicians have most memorized are “The Godfather” Parts I and II.)

Everyone in politics is getting much of what they know through the internet, through Google searches and Wikipedia. They can give you a certain sense of things but are by nature quick and shallow reads that link to other quick and shallow reads. Sometimes subjects are treated in a tendentious manner, reflecting the biases or limited knowledge of the writer.

If you get your information mostly through the Web, you’ll get stuck in “The Shallows,” which is the name of a book by Nicholas Carr about what the internet is doing to our brains. Media, he reminds us, are not just channels of information: “They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.” The internet is chipping away at our “capacity for concentration and contemplation.” “Once I was a scuba driver in the sea of words,” writes Mr. Carr. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

If you can’t read deeply you will not be able to think deeply. If you can’t think deeply you will not be able to lead well, or report well.

There is another aspect of this year’s media environment, and it would be wrong not to speak it. It is that the mainstream media appear to have decided Donald Trump is so uniquely a threat to democracy, so appalling as a political figure, such a break with wholesome political tradition, that they are justified in showing, day by day, not only opposition but utter antagonism toward him. That surely has some impact on what Kellyanne Conway calls “undercover Trump voters.” They know what polite people think of them; they know their support carries a social stigma. Last week I saw a CNN daytime anchor fairly levitate with anger as she reported on Mr. Trump; I thought she was going to have an out-of-body experience and start floating over the shiny glass desk. She surely knew she’d pay no price for her shown disdain, and might gain Twitter followers.

Guys, this isn’t helping. Tell the story, ask the questions, trust the people, give it to them straight, report both sides. It’s the most constructive thing you could do right now, when any constructive act comes as a real relief.

In a country whose institutions are in such fragile shape, mainstream media very much among them, it does no good for its members to damage further their own reputations for fairness, probity, judgment. Books will be written about this, though I’m not sure they’ll read them.

As to Monday’s debate, Hillary Clinton won. The story leading up to it was that she was frail, her health bad. Instead she was vibrant, confident, smiling and present. Sometimes when Mrs. Clinton speaks you sense she’s operating at a level of distraction, reviewing her performance in real time or thinking about dinner. Here her mind was on the mission. She did not fall into the hectoring cadence that is a harassment to the ear. She said nothing remotely interesting.

Mr. Trump’s job was to leave you able to imagine him as president. You could have, but it would be a grumpy, grouchy president with thin skin.

Neither quite got across the idea that they were in it for America and not themselves.

When you are a politician leaving the debate stage you always know if you won. You can feel it. You know when it worked and when it didn’t. You ask everyone, “How’d I do?” but you know the answer. And you’re happy. What you get after such a victory is the whoosh. The whoosh is the wind at your back that gives the spring to your step. You get the jolly look and your laugh is a real laugh and not an enactment, and all this makes you better at the next stop, which makes the crowd cheer louder, and then you really know you’ve got the whoosh.

The whoosh can carry you for days or weeks, until there’s a reversal of some kind. Then you lose the sense of magical good fortune and peerless personal performance and the audience senses it, gets quieter, and suddenly the whoosh is gone.

But right now Mrs. Clinton has it.

She’ll probably overplay her hand. That’s what she does. Her sense of her own destiny blinds her to her tendency toward misjudgment. She’ll call Trump supporters a bucket of baneful baddies.

Since the debate Mr. Trump is angry and is going straight into junkyard dog mode, which won’t work well.

This tells me the next week or so she’s on the upalator and he’s on the downalator. After that, we’ll see.

The Year of the Reticent Voter People seem to feel that if they express a preference, they’re inviting others to inspect their souls.

The signature sentence of this election begins with the words “In a country of 320 million . . .” I hear it everywhere. It ends with “how’d it come down to these two?” or “why’d we get them?

Another sentence is a now a common greeting among Republicans who haven’t seen each other in a while: “What are we gonna do?

The most arresting sentence of the week came from a sophisticated Manhattan man friendly with all sides. I asked if he knows what he’ll do in November. “I know exactly,” he said with some spirit. “I will be one of the 40 million who will deny, the day after the election, that they voted for him. But I will.”

A high elected official, a Republican, got a faraway look when I asked what he thought was going to happen. “This is the unpollable election,” he said. People don’t want to tell you who they’re for. A lot aren’t sure. A lot don’t want to be pressed.

Political JoustingThat’s exactly what I’ve seen the past few weeks in North Carolina, New Jersey, Tennessee and Minnesota.

Every four years I ask people if they’ll vote, and if they have a sense of how. Every four years they tell me—assertively or shyly, confidently or tentatively. This year is different. I’ve never seen people so nervous to answer. It’s so unlike America, this reticence, even defensiveness. It’s as if there’s a feeling that to declare who you’re for is to invite others to inspect your soul.

“I feel like this is the most controversial election ever,” said a food-court worker at La Guardia Airport. She works a full shift, 4 a.m. to noon, five days a week, then goes full-time to a nearby college. We’d been chatting a while, and when I asked the question she told me, carefully, that she hasn’t decided how she’ll vote, and neither have her family members. I said a lot of people seem nervous to say. She said: “Especially Trump people. They’re afraid you’ll think they’re stupid.”

Which is how I knew she was going to vote for Donald Trump.

It’s true: Trump voters especially don’t want to be categorized, judged, thought stupid—racist, sexist, Islamophobic, you name it. When most of them know, actually, that they’re not.

Voters who talk about 2016 are very careful to damn both sides, air their disappointment, note that they’ve been following the election closely. They know each candidate’s history.

In Tennessee I asked a smart businessman who he’s for. He carefully and at length outlined his criticisms and concerns regarding both candidates. Then, as I started to leave, he threw in, from nowhere: “So I think Trump.”

When I talk to strangers—which I do a lot, and like it—I sometimes say dour, mordant things, to get them going by establishing that anything can be said. I say if Hillary Clinton is elected there will be at least one special prosecutor, maybe two, within 18 months, because her character will not be reborn on crossing the threshold of the White House; the well-worn grooves of her essential nature will kick in. If Mr. Trump is elected there will be a constitutional crisis within 18 months because he doesn’t really know what a president does, doesn’t respect traditional boundaries, doesn’t reflect on implications and effects. I always expect pushback. I am not getting it! I get nods, laughs and, in two recent cases, admissions that whoever wins they’d been wondering how soon impeachment proceedings would begin.

Oh, my pained and crazy country.

A final observation, underlying all. Under the smiles and beyond the reticence it is clear how seriously Americans are taking their decision, how gravely. As if it’s not Tweedledum and Tweedledee but an actual choice between two vastly different dramas, two different worlds of outcome and meaning. The cynic or the screwball? Shall we go to the bad place or the crazy place?

I returned knowing I was wrong about something. I thought everyone has been watching the election more than a year, everyone knows their opinion of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump, this thing is pretty much settled. No, it’s fluid. This cake is not baked.

I talked to Peter D. Hart, the veteran Democratic pollster. Are things as much in play as I think? Yes and no, he said. People do have a firm opinion of the two candidates, the clichés are set: “Hillary competent and cold, Trump an incompetent loose cannon.” But “the part that is evolving is a sense of what we need to do and where we need to go.” Everyone wants change, but people are deciding, “constructive change or radical change?”

Pollster Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies says nothing is settled. “Voters are angry at Clinton because she can’t tell the truth and they’re scared of Trump because they’re afraid he’s gonna start a war. There are times her un-truthiness outweighs their concern about him overreacting and starting a war. It goes back and forth.”

He disagrees with the “unpollable” premise: “It’s pollable. But if anyone says their results are cast in concrete, that’s a mistake. There’s a lot of fluidity.”

The veteran pollster Kellyanne Conway, now Trump campaign manager, says: “This thing is fluid in a way we don’t understand.” She is a close student of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in all its aspects. Like Mr. Obama, she says, Mr. Trump is “a candidate built for the 21st century. . . . The most fundamental truth of politics is there’s no substitute for a great, magnetic, compelling candidate.”

She speaks of “undercover” Trump voters. “To call them hidden is a mistake. They’re undercover because they’ve gotten to the point they’re tired of arguing. . . . Some have been voting Democratic all their life, they voted for Obama, they’re tired of defending and explaining themselves” to family and coworkers. “They don’t want to proselytize.”

Mr. Hart said the debates are unusually important this year. “Trump is the central character—it’s his last opportunity to get a fresh look from voters. A debate is an open window. Voters suspend opinions and look afresh. Attitudes toward Trump have not changed—temperament questions, can he do the job?” This is a chance for him to “establish credibility at this stage of the game.” By contrast, “Hillary’s problems are not professional but personal—can I like her, does she understand me. . . . It’s an opportunity for her to get voters saying, ‘You know something, she’s not a bad egg.’ ”

Ms. Conway too says the debates are key. “People like a clash of the titans. They like a contest. These debates are the ultimate reality show—the stakes have never been higher.” After the Democratic convention the Clinton campaign, in a major miscalculation, “lowered the bar” for Trump, “calling him unfit, unpresidential.” That turned him into the underdog. “Americans love an underdog.”

Ms. Conway remembered what happened in 2008 when John McCain referred to his long experience. “Obama said if experience means you got us into this mess overseas and tanked the economy, maybe experience is overrated. We are turning this around on Clinton now.”

Mr. Trump’s advantage? “Americans love to say they think outside the box. Trump lives outside the box. Hillary is the box.”

Travel Back to an Early Clinton Scandal Voters have the impression Hillary isn’t trustworthy. She’s been reinforcing it since 1993.

The question came up this week at a political panel: Why don’t people like Hillary Clinton?

Why do they always believe the worst? Why, when some supposed scandal breaks and someone says she’s hiding something, do people, including many of her supporters, assume it’s true?

The answer is that Mrs. Clinton has been in America’s national life for a quarter-century, and in that time people watched, observed and got an impression of her character.

If you give the prompt “Clinton scandal” to someone under 30, they might say “emails,” or Benghazi” or “Clinton Foundation,” or now “health questions.” But for those who are older, whose memories encompass the Clinton era, the scandals stretch back further, all the way to her beginnings as a national figure.

Seventeen years ago, when word first came that Mrs. Clinton might come to New York, a state where she’d never lived, and seek its open U.S. Senate seat, I wrote a book called “The Case Against Hillary Clinton.” It asserted that she would win and use the Senate to run for president, likely in 2008. That, I argued, was a bad thing. In the previous eight years she’d done little to elevate our politics and much to lower it. So I laid out the case as best I could, starting with the first significant scandal of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

It is worth revisiting to make a point about why her poll numbers on trustworthiness are so bad.

It was early 1993. The Clintons had just entered the White House after a solid win that broke the Republicans’ 12-year hold. He was a young and dashing New Democrat. She too was something new, a professional woman with modern attitudes and pronounced policy interests. They had captured the national imagination and were in a strong position.

Then she—not he—messed it up. It was the first big case in which she showed poor judgment, a cool willingness to mislead, and a level of political aggression that gave even those around her pause. It was after this mess that her critics said she’d revealed the soul of an East German border guard.

The Clinton White House was internally a dramatic one, as George Stephanopoulos later recounted in “All Too Human,” his sharply observed, and in retrospect somewhat harrowing, memoir of his time as Mr. Clinton’s communications director and senior adviser. He reported staffers and officials yelling, crying, shouting swear words and verbally threatening each other. It was a real hothouse. There was a sense the gargoyles had taken over the cathedral. But that wouldn’t become apparent until later.

On May 19, 1993, less than four months into the administration, the seven men who had long worked in the White House travel office were suddenly and brutally fired. The seven nonpartisan government workers, who helped arrange presidential trips, served at the pleasure of the president. But each new president had kept them on because they were good at their jobs.

A veteran civil servant named Billy Dale had worked in the office 30 years and headed it the last 10. He and his colleagues were ordered to clear out their desks and were escorted from the White House, which quickly announced they were the subject of a criminal investigation by the FBI.

They were in shock. So were members of the press, who knew Mr. Dale and his colleagues as honest and professional. A firestorm ensued.

Under criticism the White House changed its story. They said that they were just trying to cut unneeded staff and save money. Then they said they were trying to impose a competitive bidding process. They tried a new explanation—the travel office shake-up was connected to Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review. (Almost immediately Mr. Gore said that was not true.) The White House then said it was connected to a campaign pledge to cut the White House staff by 25%. Finally they claimed the workers hadn’t been fired at all but placed on indefinite “administrative leave.”

Why so many stories? Because the real one wasn’t pretty.

First Lady Hillary ClintonIt emerged in contemporaneous notes of a high White House staffer that the travel-office workers were removed because Mrs. Clinton wanted to give their jobs—their “slots,” as she put it, according to the notes of director of administration David Watkins—to political operatives who’d worked for Mr. Clinton’s campaign. And she wanted to give the travel office business itself to loyalists. There was a travel company based in Arkansas with long ties to the Clintons. There was a charter travel company founded by Harry Thomason, a longtime friend and fundraiser, which had provided services in the 1992 campaign. If the travel office were privatized and put to bid, he could get the business. On top of that, a staffer named Catherine Cornelius, said to be the new president’s cousin, also wanted to run the travel office. In his book “Blood Sport,” the reporter James B. Stewart described her as “dazzled by her proximity to power, full of a sense of her own importance.” Soon rumors from her office, and others, were floating through the White House: The travel office staff were disloyal crooks.

The White House pressed the FBI to investigate, FBI agents balked—on what evidence?—but ultimately there was an investigation, and an audit.

All along Mrs. Clinton publicly insisted she had no knowledge of the firings. Then it became barely any knowledge, then barely any involvement. When the story blew up she said under oath that she had “no role in the decision to terminate the employees.” She did not “direct that any action be taken by anyone.” In a deposition she denied having had a role in the firings, and said she was unable to remember conversations with various staffers with any specificity.

A General Accounting Office report found she did play a role. But three years later a memo written by David Watkins to the White House chief of staff, recounting the history of the firings, suddenly surfaced. (“Suddenly surfaced” is a phrase one reads a lot in Clinton scandal stories.) It showed Mrs. Clinton herself directed them. “There would be hell to pay,” he wrote, if staffers did not conform “to the first lady’s wishes.”

Billy Dale was indicted on charges including embezzlement. The trial lasted almost two weeks. Mr. Dale, it emerged, could have kept better books. The jury acquitted him in less than two hours. In the end he retired, as did his assistant. The five others were given new government jobs.

So—that was the Clintons’ first big Washington scandal. It showed what has now become the Clinton Scandal Ritual: lie, deny, revise, claim not to remember specifics, stall for time. When it passes, call the story “old news” full of questions that have already been answered. “As I’ve repeatedly said . . .”

More scandals would follow. They all showed poor judgment on the part of the president, and usually Mrs. Clinton. They all included a startling willingness—and ability—to dissemble.

People watched and got a poor impression.

The point is it didn’t start the past few years, it started almost a quarter-century ago. You have to wonder, what are the chances it will change?

Remembering a Hero, 15 Years After 9/11 ‘With this bandanna,’ Welles Crowther said, ‘I’m gonna change the world.’ And he did.

What do I think about when I think about that day? The firemen who climbed “the stairway to Heaven” with 50, 60 pounds of gear. The people who called from Windows on the World and said: “I just want you to know I love you.” The men on the plane who tried to take the cockpit of Flight 93 before it went down in a Pennsylvania field: “Let’s roll.”

And I think about Welles Crowther, the man in the red bandanna.

He was 24, from Nyack, N.Y. He played lacrosse at Boston College, graduated and got an internship at Sandler O’Neill, the investment bank. In two years he was a junior associate on the trading desk. He worked in the south tower of the World Trade Center, on the 104th floor.

When United Flight 175 hit that tower at 9:03 a.m., it came in at a tilt, ripping through floors 78 through 84. Many of those who never got out were on those floors, or the ones above. Welles Crowther had already called his mother, Alison, and left a voicemail: “I want you to know that I’m OK.” Only one stairwell was clear. He found it. Most people would have run for their lives, but he started running for everyone else’s.

Welles & Allison Crowther

Welles Crowther and his mother, Alison, in 1999.

Welles was beloved—bright, joyous, grounded. Family was everything to him. He idolized his father, Jefferson, a banker and volunteer fireman. They went to the firehouse together when Welles was a child. Welles would clean the trucks, getting in close where no one else could fit. One Sunday when Welles was 7 or 8 his mother dressed him for church in his first suit. His father had a white handkerchief in his breast pocket. Could he have one? Jefferson put one in Welles’s front pocket and then took a colored one and put it in Welles’s back pocket. One’s for show, he said, the other’s for blow.

“Welles kept it with him, a connection to his father,” said Alison Crowther this week by phone. “He carried a red bandanna all his life.” It was a talisman but practical, too. It could clean up a mess. When he’d take it from his pocket at Sandler O’Neill they’d tease him. What are you, a farmer? That is from Tom Rinaldi’s lovely book “The Red Bandanna,” which came out this week. He’d tease back: “With this bandanna I’m gonna change the world.”

As Welles went down the stairwell he saw what happened on the 78th floor sky lobby. People trying to escape had been waiting for elevators when the plane hit. It was carnage—fire, smoke, bodies everywhere. A woman named Ling Young, a worker for the state tax department, sat on the floor, badly burned and in shock. From out of the murk she heard a man’s voice: “I found the stairs. Follow me.”

“There was something she heard in the voice, an authority, compelling her to follow,” Mr. Rinaldi writes. Ms. Young stood, and followed. She saw that the man was carrying a woman. Eighteen floors down the air began to clear. He gently placed the woman down and told them both to continue walking down. Then he turned and went back upstairs to help others.

Judy Wein of Aon Corporation had also been in the 78th floor. She too was badly injured and she too heard the voice: “Everyone who can stand now, stand now. If you can help others, do so.” He guided her and others to the stairwell.

Apparently Welles kept leading people down from the top floors to the lower ones, where they could make their way out. Then he’d go up to find more. No one knows how many. The fire department credits him with five saved lives.

He never made it home. His family hoped, grieved, filled out forms. On the Friday after 9/11 Alison stood up from her desk and suddenly she knew Welles was there, right behind her. She could feel his energy, his force; it was him. She didn’t turn. She just said: Thank you. She knew he was saying he was OK. After that she didn’t dare hope he’d be found alive because she knew he wouldn’t.

They found him six months later, in the lobby of the south tower. He’d made it all the way down. He was found in an area with many firefighters’ remains. It had been the FDNY command post. It was where assistant fire chief Donald Burns was found. He and his men had probably helped evacuate thousands. Welles could have left and saved his own life—they all could have. But they’d all stayed. “He was helping,” said Alison.

The Crowthers never knew what he’d done until Memorial Day weekend 2002. The New York Times carried a minute-by-minute report of what happened in the towers after the planes hit. Near the end it said: “A mysterious man appeared at one point, his mouth and nose covered with a red handkerchief.” It mentioned Ms. Young and Ms. Wein. The Crowthers sent them pictures of Welles.

That was him, they said. Ms. Wein had seen his face when he took the bandanna from his face as the air cleared on the lower floors. Ms. Young said: “He saved my life.”

As a child, Welles Crowther had wanted to be a fireman. Few knew he’d decided to apply for the FDNY while he was still at Sandler. After his father found his application the department did something it had done only once in the 141 years since its founding. It made Welles an honorary member.

His father sometimes felt guilt—maybe taking him to the fire department so much when he was a kid was why Welles died. Alison said no: “That gave him the tools to be the fullest person he was that day.”

She thinks now of something else. The family spent the Labor Day before 9/11 together, at the house in Nyack. All weekend, said Alison, Welles was subdued—“quiet, introspective.” Normally he’d be charging around, playing basketball. At one point he sat with his mother in the living room. “He said, ‘You know, Mom, I don’t know what it is but I know I’m meant to be part of something really big.’ I didn’t get it. Who would get it? But he definitely sensed something was coming.”

I asked Alison Crowther a hard question, embarrassing for a parent to answer: How do you make a hero? She paused. “We tried to instill honesty,” she said. “The fearlessness he came with—my husband said he came with that hardware installed. He was this good-hearted little guy, very protective from an early age. Honesty was a big thing with us, and taking responsibility.”

It wasn’t us, she was saying, it was him. It was Welles.

The way I see it, courage comes from love. There’s a big unseen current of love that hums through the world, and some plug into it more than others, more deeply and surely, and they get more power from it. And it fills them with courage. It makes everything possible.

People see the fallen, beat-up world around them and ask: What can I do? Maybe: Be like Welles Crowther. Take your bandanna, change the world.

Can Anxiety Beat Depression in November? Trump inches up in the polls. Perhaps the reason is not him but Hillary.

By tradition the presidential campaign begins in earnest on Labor Day. This year I questioned that premise. Its assumption is that normal people don’t start paying attention until September. That’s probably been true in the past. But this time normal people have been paying attention all year. Donald Trump’s candidacy was a sensation—you couldn’t not see him or hear him. In another way people have been paying attention for a quarter-century, which is how long Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump have been famous in America. Everyone knows what they think; everyone knows their impression of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump.

But not everyone knows how they’ll vote—him, her, third- or fourth-party, write-in. The polls are tightening and no one is sure why. A Reuters/Ipsos poll through Aug. 29 had Mrs. Clinton at 40%, Mr. Trump at 38% among likely voters. A Rasmussen poll ending Aug. 31 had Mrs. Clinton at 39%, Mr. Trump at 40%. A Fox News poll ending the same day had Mrs. Clinton at 41% and Mr. Trump at 39%. As to the battleground states, a Marquette University Law School poll out this week had Mrs. Clinton leading Mr. Trump 45% to 42% in Wisconsin among those who said they’ll definitely vote in November. That sounds solid, but three weeks ago Mrs. Clinton had a 15-point lead.

Halloween MasksAnd Mr. Trump’s successful trip to Mexico, in which he stood at separate podiums with a president, trading niceties, seeming comfortable—seeming like a normal political figure—followed by his base-rousing immigration speech in Arizona, came after these polls were taken. A Trump supporter told/spun me that it was a Nixon-to-China moment, which it was not. Nixon knew exactly what he was doing and why, the diplomacy of it had been long and secretly arranged, and it wasn’t driven by immediate political need but by America’s strategic requirements.

But if the polls are right, things are moving, and not in Mrs. Clinton’s direction. I’d thought people’s views of Mr. Trump were by now indelible and unchangeable: He’d been branded, by himself. Maybe that’s true. We’ll know in retrospect. But maybe he can nudge his numbers a little. Can Mrs. Clinton?

We’re used to attributing everything by default to Mr. Trump—what’s he done now? But maybe the fact of Trump isn’t driving things, but the central fact of Hillary. It is a fact we all know so well that we factor it in and forget it. It is that people view her as both untruthful and untrustworthy. A Fox News poll out this week said an astounding 74% of respondents said they believe Mrs. Clinton would do anything to be president (68% said the same of Mr. Trump). A Washington Post/ABC News poll also this week showed Mrs. Clinton’s image at an all-time low. Among registered voters, 59% view her unfavorably (60% view Mr. Trump unfavorably). The Post: “If it weren’t for Trump, in fact, Clinton would be the most unpopular major-party presidential nominee in modern American history.” Think of that, in someone well known to Americans for 25 years.

Reading the Fox story reminded me of a moment last February in New Hampshire, during the primaries. It was a weekend night. I was at one of her rallies in a high-school gym in a handsome suburb. It was well-organized—good lighting and security, a buzzy crowd. Mrs. Clinton was introduced and she bounded out—blue pantsuit, well made-up, high-energy, pointing out friends, real or imagined, in the crowd. I thought: Give it to her, she’s 60-something, she’s out in America working the room, making the speech, enacting the joy, when she could be home on a Saturday night watching TV.

Then it struck me. If she weren’t here, she’d be in an empty house in Chappaqua, N.Y., the focus of no eyes—not important, not glamorous, no aides or staffers. I thought: She needs to run, it’s this or reruns on Bravo. I thought: This is why you pick up that there is no overarching purpose, theme or mission to her candidacy—because there isn’t. There is only her need—not to be powerless, not to be away from the center. It’s not The America Project, it’s The Hillary Project.

You see that a lot in politicians, but not always those running for president. That night I think I saw it in her.

This connects in my mind with 1992. By November of that year I thought the close presidential contest would come down to a battle between depression and anxiety. If you imagined picking up a newspaper the morning after the election and saw “Bush Re-elected,” you might feel blue—same old same old, 12 years of Republican rule turning into 16. If it said “Clinton Wins,” you might feel anxiety—we never even heard of this guy until six months ago, an obscure Arkansas governor! I figured that in America anxiety beats depression because it’s the more awake state.

There may be an aspect of that dynamic in this race. Mrs. Clinton is depression: You know exactly who she is, what trouble she brings—she always brings that sack full of scandal—and she won’t make anything better. Mr. Trump is anxiety: If you back him you know you’re throwing the long ball, a real Hail Mary pass to the casino developer and reality TV star who may or may not know how to catch the ball when catching the ball means everything. But he’s entertaining—he scrambles all categories, makes things chaotic. He has fun with his audience.

The crowd Wednesday night in Arizona reacted with joy when he asked if they were ready for the part about Mexico. His own supporters will tell you he may be a little crazy but not Caligula crazy, only drunk-uncle crazy. The Clinton campaign has a strong television ad out that shows Mr. Trump yelling and making faces. It warns at the end that a president only needs one mistake to make things go terribly wrong. It’s the sort of ad that would impress voters already convinced that he’s disqualified by temperament. But others might just think: Yeah, he talks like that sometimes, it’s part of the act.

Last week the pollster Peter Hart did a focus group, for the Annenberg Public Policy Center, of a dozen independent voters in Wisconsin. They saw 2016 as a fear-and-loathing election, loathing Mrs. Clinton (depression) and fearing Mr. Trump (anxiety). They thought Mrs. Clinton would win but described her as a lying and untrustworthy career politician. They saw Mr. Trump as reckless, inexperienced, “a bully and a loudmouth,” in the words of one participant. (Another compared him to the drunk uncle.) They had little optimism about America right now, using words like “political turmoil,” “unrest” and “downhill.” Asked if the 2016 election had a smell what would it be, their answers included “rotten eggs,” “skunk,” “stink” and “garbage.” Asked which political figures they admired in their lifetimes, one said Gerald Ford, one Bill Clinton, and about half said Ronald Reagan. They seemed to miss the idea of character.

Actually there seemed an undertone of fear that we’re not raising Fords and Reagans now, we’re raising Clintons and Trumps and it doesn’t bode well.

A Wounded Boy’s Silence, and the Candidates’ ‘I hate war,’ FDR declared 80 years ago. Why can’t today’s politicians say so?

With the campaign proper about to begin, on Labor Day, a last August thought, a very simple one: War is terrible. It is my impression our candidates for president don’t really know this. They never say it, not in formal speeches or in thinking aloud, in reveries in friendly interviews. I would say of most of America’s political class that they have their heads all screwed up about war, that they approach the subject coolly, as a political and geopolitical matter, and that they see it through prisms of personal political need and ideological gain. They are missing the central fact of it—that it is terrible. Before the election is over it would be good if someone said it.

The thought arises most recently from the harrowing photo and videotape of the 5-year-old boy in Aleppo, Syria. You have seen one or both. His name is Omran Daqneesh and he lived with his parents and three siblings in the rebel-held Qaterji neighborhood, which late Wednesday night last week either Russian or Syrian forces targeted in a brutal airstrike. Omran was pulled from the rubble. He was placed on a seat in the back of an ambulance.

Five-year-old Omran Daqneesh

Five-year-old Omran Daqneesh after being pulled out of a building hit by an airstrike in Aleppo, Syria.

The left side of his head was covered in blood. His thick dark hair was stiff from smoke and dust. His legs were marked by soot and what looked like bruises. One report said he’d been in the rubble an hour before they dug him out.

They wouldn’t let the ambulance go until it was full. There was room for more children, and they came. But Omran is the one you can’t stop watching. He stares mutely, like a shocked old man. Photojournalists make flashes of light as they take his picture. No one has—or takes—a moment to call any comfort to him, to the 5-year-old boy as he stares ahead.

He can’t fully see out of his left eye, which seems damaged. Tentatively, calling no attention to himself, he brings his left hand up to his head and touches around for the wound. He seems to find it, then puts his hand down on his legs, as if not to call attention to his wounds.

Watching the videotape, posted on YouTube by an anti-Assad group, you see what is most harrowing. It isn’t only his youth, his aloneness, the blood—it’s that he isn’t crying.

Children, by nature and instinct, cry when they are infants. But as they grow older, 3 and 4 and 5, crying is sometimes more of a decision. Children who know they’re cared for cry in the expectation that someone will comfort them. If by 3 or 4 you haven’t had that, or haven’t had that enough—if circumstances were harsh enough that you couldn’t rely on help or comfort—then you might not cry. Because it won’t bring the help you need, or may in fact bring negative responses.

For all 5 years of his life, Omran Daqneesh lived in a country wracked by civil war, surrounded by the tension, fear and hardship war brings.

Anyway, he didn’t cry. He was taken to a local underground hospital called M10, treated for head wounds and released. There are reports his older brother has since died.

War is terrible. It abuses the innocent and takes their lives, it wastes all kinds of treasure, it kills generations and whole cultures. It strikes me as rather mad that our candidates for commander in chief of the most powerful armed forces in the world don’t ever simply think aloud about this.

About 18 months ago I asked a potential Republican presidential candidate, in conversation, if he hated war. He got the dart-eyed look politicians get when they sense a trick question. This startled me. How do you not know the answer? After a few seconds I said, “This is not a trick question.” I explained I was thinking of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said, “I hate war,” roughly five years before prosecuting one with unambivalent vigor.

The potential candidate then stuttered that of course he doesn’t like war, but sometimes it’s necessary. Well, yes, sometimes it is. But why would you fear stating that war is hell, and hell ain’t where we want to be?

Afterward, and again this week, I went back to FDR’s famous speech, delivered at Chautauqua, N.Y., Aug. 14, 1936—80 years ago this month. He was “less cheerful,” he admitted, about world events than domestic ones—this at the depth of the Depression. What happens in the world may have an impact on the United States, but we can serve the cause of peace by “setting an example” and following the policy of the good neighbor—“the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others.” Because of this practice “the whole world now knows that the United States cherishes no predatory ambitions. We are strong; but less powerful nations know that they need not fear our strength.”

He observed that “the noblest monument to peace . . . in all the world is not a monument . . . but the boundary which unites the United States and Canada—3,000 miles of friendship.” Still, so long as war exists there is danger of being “drawn into” one. That grieves him, he said, because “I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. . . . I have seen cities destroyed. . . . I hate war.”

It’s quite a speech, a deep and persuasive exposing of thoughts on the most essential of human and governmental subjects. But what really surprised me on rereading it was that I don’t think a Republican or Democratic candidate would feel free to speak like that anymore. They’d fear being called soft. That isn’t good, or even practical. FDR after all was pretty good at waging war. It only made him more powerful, made his decisions more convincing, that he’d laid down the predicate that he’d never wanted it and in fact hated it.

Unless I’m missing something neither candidate for president appears to have an informed or deeply felt sense of the tragedy of war. Hillary Clinton was subjected, in the primaries, to sharp criticism from the left that she was too bellicose, was wrong to go all in on Iraq, wrong to support regime change in Libya, wrong to be so temperamentally activist in this area. When Moammar Gadhafi was killed in the field after the fall of his government she laughed with a reporter: “We came, we saw, he died.”

As for Donald Trump, he is usually equally aggressive in speaking of potential U.S. military actions, though it’s clear he hates war at least for himself. He did not serve and famously told Howard Stern that dodging incoming STDs was his personal Vietnam.

Our leaders are shallow on the subject of war. No, worse than shallow—they’re silent. Which is one reason they will likely not be fully trusted should they make rough decisions down the road on Syria, or Iran, or elsewhere.

War is terrible. That should be said over and over, not because it’s a box you ought to check on the way to the presidency but because you’re human and have a brain.

You should hate war. A 5-year-old knows that.

A Dramatic Lesson About Political Actors The Danish series ‘Borgen’ speaks to the growing detachment between leaders and the led.

Let’s look at last week’s theme—the growing detachment between Western leaders and the led—in a different way. I have spent much of my downtime the past year watching and re-watching the three seasons of the Danish drama “ Borgen.” It is the fictional story of the surprise election and government of the first woman elected prime minister of Denmark, and it is one of the greatest portrayals of modern politics and government I have ever seen. As drama it is riveting and full of unexpected turns, also somewhat haunting and discomfiting, which I’ll get to in a moment. But I couldn’t get over how wonderful it was—how universal in terms of politics, and of the moment (it premiered on Danish TV in 2010 and ran through 2013), and how it anticipated political events in the West (including the election of an actual female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, in 2011). Also how beautiful it is—elegantly shot, acted, written. It had a cult following in Denmark and the U.K., and ought to here.

Borgen is the popular name of Copenhagen’s Christiansborg Palace, which houses the Parliament and prime minister’s office. The new prime minister is Birgitte Nyborg, played by the luminous Sidse Babett Knudsen. Her character is beautifully created—young, kindly, smart, attractive, determined, warm. Also a tough little broad who understands the tough ways of the world. Her politics are left-liberal; she butts heads with the hard left, the hard-hard left, moderate liberals and a small right-wing populist party.

Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg

Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg in the Danish drama ‘Borgen.’

The living gargoyles that populate her world are people you would recognize if you watch too much American cable news. She deals with ideologues, hacks, ambitious allies. There is her tormented spin doctor—Danish politics is on some level so innocent they consider that an honorable profession and don’t even bother with the title of press secretary. The journalists around her treat politics as a commodity. They are curt, vulgar, hungry, sometimes but not always redeemed by idealism and the people’s right to know.

Almost all the characters are on the left, the only question being what kind of leftist you are. Those who seem centrist are really just bored with politics. There are two conservatives, a malevolent newspaper editor, who torments figures of the left for the enjoyment of the right, and the populist party’s head, who is old and homely, wears the wrong clothes, and accepts being sneered at as the price he pays for where he stands.

He is occasionally given his due. In a live television debate Birgitte eloquently advances her government’s plan to take in more refugees from the Mideast, which she paints as a grand gesture in line with Denmark’s long moral tradition. He wins the moment arguing for prudence, at the end quoting feelingly from an old Danish poem. In a way he is one of the moral characters, if always an object of fun. Eventually he is overthrown by a sexy rising rightist, a dim little mover who knows the old man isn’t attractive or compelling enough to win the future.

Two plotlines capture something about the show and its larger reality.

Early in office Birgitte, head of a tenuous coalition government, chooses to back a major new feminist initiative. Her government will push a bill demanding quotas on corporate boards—half those chosen now must be women. It had been a campaign promise. Also she thinks it fair—there hasn’t been an increase in female business executives in 10 years.

Denmark’s biggest industrialist asks for a meeting. He opposes state intervention in this area, he tells the prime minister. He is not hostile to women’s rights but needs the freedom to do what is best for his company. If she doesn’t pull the bill, he will move his company and its 10,000 jobs out of the country. With the courteous imperiousness only a 70-year-old major CEO could pull off, he gives her 48 hours to decide.

She leaves, rattled. A media conglomerate that turns out to be owned by the CEO quickly begins smearing one of her ministers.

She studies up. The CEO begins meetings at headquarters with a song about Denmark. He plays cards with the royal family. He is a philanthropist. He’s been knighted.

She realizes she can use his patriotism against him.

When they meet he asks for her answers. No, she says, she’ll go forward. All right, he says, my company will leave.

“But you won’t,” she says. You’ll stay because you are not going to spend the end of your career negotiating your departure from the country you love. You will stay and we will make you modern. You’ll end a hero.

Their eyes lock in silence. It is true—he’ll never leave.

What do I get? he asks. Her government’s environmental taxes are hurting his company. Perhaps they can be delayed two years?

She smiles, nods. They shake hands.

As he walks away, her face is convulsed by a tic. You see what the high-stakes bluff cost her. You feel sympathy. It is a very great drama that leaves you moved by and rooting for the person whose stand you disagree with.

The second revealing plotline:

The previous government had taken steps to privatize health care. Birgitte is opposed to private health insurance—it would make Denmark the mess America is. Her health-care bill, in her words, “declares war on private health insurance.” The rich shouldn’t be allowed to buy their way out of the public system; it needs to be strengthened. It’s unjust that private hospitals get the best doctors.

Then her teenage daughter has a nervous breakdown. Birgitte is informed public psychiatric hospitals have a 50-week wait. She sends her daughter to a private hospital with the best doctors. She is accused of hypocrisy; a public uproar ensues. Throughout this drama she never once doubts her policy—the one she herself is buying her way out of. She knows what’s good for the people and she knows what’s good for her family, and when they’re not the same she does not question her assumptions but only barrels on.

This great drama shows all that. Which is why there’s something haunting in it, and discomfiting. You get a strong sense of why things don’t work.

“Borgen” captures this: History is human. Political leaders are driven by personal imperatives every bit as much as—often more than—public ones.

It demonstrates, knowingly or not, that to be of the left in the Western political context is to operate in a broad, deep, richly populated liberal-world that rarely if ever is pierced by contrary thought. They are in a bubble they can’t see, even as they accuse others of living in bubbles. Birgitte sees herself as practical and pragmatic, and she is—within a broader context of absolute and unquestioned ideology.

It reminded me that as a general rule political parties and political actors do not change their minds based on evidence or argument. They have to be beaten. Only then can they rationalize change to themselves and their colleagues: “We keep losing!” Defeat is the only condition in which they can see the need for change. They have to be concussed into it.

How Global Elites Forsake Their Countrymen Those in power see people at the bottom as aliens whose bizarre emotions they must try to manage.

This is about distance, and detachment, and a kind of historic decoupling between the top and the bottom in the West that did not, in more moderate recent times, exist.

Recently I spoke with an acquaintance of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and the conversation quickly turned, as conversations about Ms. Merkel now always do, to her decisions on immigration. Last summer when Europe was engulfed with increasing waves of migrants and refugees from Muslim countries, Ms. Merkel, moving unilaterally, announced that Germany would take in an astounding 800,000. Naturally this was taken as an invitation, and more than a million came. The result has been widespread public furor over crime, cultural dissimilation and fears of terrorism. From such a sturdy, grounded character as Ms. Merkel the decision was puzzling—uncharacteristically romantic about people, how they live their lives, and history itself, which is more charnel house than settlement house.

Ms. Merkel’s acquaintance sighed and agreed. It’s one thing to be overwhelmed by an unexpected force, quite another to invite your invaders in! But, the acquaintance said, he believed the chancellor was operating in pursuit of ideals. As the daughter of a Lutheran minister, someone who grew up in East Germany, Ms. Merkel would have natural sympathy for those who feel marginalized and displaced. Moreover she is attempting to provide a kind of counter-statement, in the 21st century, to Germany’s great sin of the 20th. The historical stain of Nazism, the murder and abuse of the minority, will be followed by the moral triumph of open arms toward the dispossessed. That’s what’s driving it, said the acquaintance.

It was as good an explanation as I’d heard. But there was a fundamental problem with the decision that you can see rippling now throughout the West. Ms. Merkel had put the entire burden of a huge cultural change not on herself and those like her but on regular people who live closer to the edge, who do not have the resources to meet the burden, who have no particular protection or money or connections. Ms. Merkel, her cabinet and government, the media and cultural apparatus that lauded her decision were not in the least affected by it and likely never would be.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Nothing in their lives will get worse. The challenge of integrating different cultures, negotiating daily tensions, dealing with crime and extremism and fearfulness on the street—that was put on those with comparatively little, whom I’ve called the unprotected. They were left to struggle, not gradually and over the years but suddenly and in an air of ongoing crisis that shows no signs of ending—because nobody cares about them enough to stop it.

The powerful show no particular sign of worrying about any of this. When the working and middle class pushed back in shocked indignation, the people on top called them “xenophobic,” “narrow-minded,” “racist.” The detached, who made the decisions and bore none of the costs, got to be called “humanist,” “compassionate,” and “hero of human rights.”

And so the great separating incident at Cologne last New Year’s, and the hundreds of sexual assaults by mostly young migrant men who were brought up in societies where women are veiled—who think they should be veiled—and who chose to see women in short skirts and high heels as asking for it.

Cologne of course was followed by other crimes.

The journalist Chris Caldwell reports in the Weekly Standard on Ms. Merkel’s statement a few weeks ago, in which she told Germans that history was asking them to “master the flip side, the shadow side, of all the positive effects of globalization.”

Caldwell: “This was the chancellor’s . . . way of acknowledging that various newcomers to the national household had begun to attack and kill her voters at an alarming rate.” Soon after her remarks, more horrific crimes followed, including in Munich (nine killed in a McDonald’s) Reutlingen (a knife attack) and Ansbach (a suicide bomber).

*   *   *

The larger point is that this is something we are seeing all over, the top detaching itself from the bottom, feeling little loyalty to it or affiliation with it. It is a theme I see working its way throughout the West’s power centers. At its heart it is not only a detachment from, but a lack of interest in, the lives of your countrymen, of those who are not at the table, and who understand that they’ve been abandoned by their leaders’ selfishness and mad virtue-signalling.

On Wall Street, where they used to make statesmen, they now barely make citizens. CEOs are consumed with short-term thinking, stock prices, quarterly profits. They don’t really believe that they have to be involved with “America” now; they see their job as thinking globally and meeting shareholder expectations.

In Silicon Valley the idea of “the national interest” is not much discussed. They adhere to higher, more abstract, more global values. They’re not about America, they’re about . . . well, I suppose they’d say the future.

In Hollywood the wealthy protect their own children from cultural decay, from the sick images they create for all the screens, but they don’t mind if poor, unparented children from broken-up families get those messages and, in the way of things, act on them down the road.

From what I’ve seen of those in power throughout business and politics now, the people of your country are not your countrymen, they’re aliens whose bizarre emotions you must attempt occasionally to anticipate and manage.

In Manhattan, my little island off the continent, I see the children of the global business elite marry each other and settle in London or New York or Mumbai. They send their children to the same schools and are alert to all class markers. And those elites, of Mumbai and Manhattan, do not often identify with, or see a connection to or an obligation toward, the rough, struggling people who live at the bottom in their countries. In fact, they fear them, and often devise ways, when home, of not having their wealth and worldly success fully noticed.

Affluence detaches, power adds distance to experience. I don’t have it fully right in my mind but something big is happening here with this division between the leaders and the led. It is very much a feature of our age. But it is odd that our elites have abandoned or are abandoning the idea that they belong to a country, that they have ties that bring responsibilities, that they should feel loyalty to their people or, at the very least, a grounded respect.

I close with a story that I haven’t seen in the mainstream press. This week the Daily Caller’s Peter Hasson reported that recent Syrian refugees being resettled in Virginia, were sent to the state’s poorest communities. Data from the State Department showed that almost all Virginia’s refugees since October “have been placed in towns with lower incomes and higher poverty rates, hours away from the wealthy suburbs outside of Washington, D.C.” Of 121 refugees, 112 were placed in communities at least 100 miles from the nation’s capital. The suburban counties of Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington—among the wealthiest in the nation, and home to high concentrations of those who create, and populate, government and the media—have received only nine refugees.

Some of the detachment isn’t unconscious. Some of it is sheer and clever self-protection. At least on some level they can take care of their own.