Don’t Do It, Mr. Romney He’d have been a better president than Obama. That’s not nearly enough.

Hershey, Pa.

A conversation with a Republican governor who is a possible presidential aspirant:

I told him I’d been thinking about something and wanted his response. You can argue that a governor is a better presidential nominee than a senator because governors, unlike lawmakers, have to do something and can be judged by their performance, which is measurable. You can look at their terms and say they raised or cut taxes, which helped or hurt the economy. They reformed the prison system, or they failed to. They balanced the budget or they didn’t. They improved education or not. They succeeded or failed in creating a favorable business climate. There are numbers and statistics that can to some degree test their claims. They know domestic issues and can be judged on domestic issues.

But they know nothing about the world. They haven’t been filling their brain-space with foreign policy and foreign affairs the past 20 years; they’ve been filling their minds with the facts of Indiana or Louisiana or New Jersey.

Don't Do It!

Don’t Do It!

And so when they go national, they farm out these key areas to the party’s foreign-policy eggheads. And they unknowingly become captured by this worldview or that, this tendency and attitude or that. And they don’t even know they’ve been captured, they’re not that sophisticated. They just think they handed the foreign-policy portfolio over to someone respectable who’s called a thinker. (The first thing the thinker usually shares is not a thought but political advice: “You have to sound strong!”)

Senators, on the other hand, can’t be judged by clear domestic measures. They don’t have to do anything but talk on TV. Their communications offices send out press releases on their latest bill, which goes nowhere because the Senate doesn’t really do anything anymore, it’s just a big talking machine. You can’t judge them by what they did on unemployment or schools or taxes because they haven’t done anything.

But on foreign affairs they actually know a few things, because foreign affairs is in their portfolio. They’re on the Foreign Relations or Armed Services committee, they’re on subcommittees dealing with serious international issues, they go on fact-finding trips to Iraq and Africa and Asia. They visit and to some degree witness the results of American action or inaction. They get a more worldly view. (Once a senator told me his life is an intellectual feast. He gets to meet with scientists, prime ministers, visionaries, historians, great men—he has access to everyone, being a senator. I thought jeesh, glad you’re having a good time on our dime. But I also thought, OK, he’s going to know some things by the time he’s done.)

Anyway, to the governor I said, in a world in which foreign affairs continue to be more important than ever, in a dangerous world with which we have ever more dealings, shouldn’t we be thinking about senators for the presidency, and not governors?

He listened closely, nodded, then shook his head. No, he said, governors still have the advantage. Why? Because foreign policy still comes down, always, to your gut, your instincts. And your instincts are sharpened by the kind of experience you get as a chief executive in a statehouse, which is constant negotiation with antagonists who have built-in power bases. You learn what works from success and failure with entrenched powers that can undo you, from unions to local pressure groups to unreliable allies. Being a governor is about handling real and discernible power. A governor can learn what a senator knows more easily than a senator can learn what a governor knows.

This will be one of the subtexts of the 2016 GOP presidential race.

Regarding that race, the news this week was of Mitt Romney’s seriousness in considering running again for the nomination. I just spent two days at the Republican joint congressional retreat in Hershey, Pa., and can tell you there was exactly no Mitt-momentum. The talk, when it turned to 2016, was of others. Those in attendance seemed to be trying to get the possibility of Mitt Part 3 through their heads, because while they understand it on a personal level—no one who’s been in the game ever wants to leave the game—they could see no compelling political rationale.

Everyone this week came down on Mr. Romney. In major newspapers and on political websites they listed their reasons he shouldn’t run. He is yesterday, we need tomorrow. He is an example of what didn’t work, we have to turn the page. He is and always has been philosophically murky—it’s almost part of his charm—but it’s not what’s needed now. He ran a poor campaign in 2012 and will run a poor one in 2016. He was a gaffe machine—“47%”; “I have some great friends that are Nascar team owners”—and those gaffes played into the party’s brand problems.

In defense of Mr. Romney’s idea, and what must be the impulse behind it, is this. If every voter in America were today given a secret toggle switch and told, “If you tug the toggle to the left, Barack Obama will stay president until January, 2017; if you tug it to the right, Mitt Romney will become president,” about 60% of the American people would tug right.

It must be hard for him to know that, and make him want to give it another try. But it’s also true that America would, right now, choose your Uncle Ralph who spends his time knitting over the current incumbent.

I add two reasons Mr. Romney should not run.

This is a moment in history that demands superior political gifts from one who would govern. Mitt Romney does not have them. He never did. He’s good at life and good at business and good at faith. He is politically clunky, always was and always will be. His clunkiness is seen in the way he leaked his interest in running: to mega-millionaires and billionaires in New York. “Tell your friends.”

Second, Romney enthusiasts like to compare him with Ronald Reagan, who ran three times. This is technically true, though 1968 was sort of a half-run in which Reagan got in late and dropped out early, because he wasn’t ready for the presidency and knew it. But his 1976 run was serious, almost triumphant, and won for him the party’s heart.

The real Romney-Reagan difference is this: There was something known as Reaganism. It was a real movement within the party and then the nation. Reaganism had meaning. You knew what you were voting for. It was a philosophy that people understood. Philosophies are powerful. They carry you, and if they are right and pertinent to the moment they make you inevitable.

There is no such thing as Romneyism and there never will be. Mr. Romney has never encompassed a philosophical world. He has never become the symbol of an attitude toward government, or an approach to freedom or fairness. “Romneyism” is just “Mitt should be president.” That is not enough.

He is a smart, nice and accomplished man who thinks himself clever and politically insightful. He is not and will not become so. He should devote himself to supporting and not attempting to lead the party that has raised him so high.

On the Matter of the Pictures

The new issue of Charlie Hebdo is out. In Paris it sold out almost immediately and the print run has been upped to a reported five million. On the cover is a cartoon of Muhammad, a tear on his cheek. Tens of millions of people will see it.

It is almost enough but not quite.

This is the moment, a week after the shootings, on the day of the publication of the first issue of the magazine since the murders, to rob all the Muhammad cartoons of their mystique. Steal away their power. Make them banal, not secret, censored and powerful but common. Flood the zone, let everyone see them. Show that they are only cartoons, caricatures, playthings. Show that the murderers got exactly the opposite of what they wanted. “You kill to stop a cartoon? We flood the streets with cartoons. You can’t take it? We have freedom here. You don’t have to live in the midst of it, you can go to a place that does not put such an emphasis on this kind of freedom.”

If in the West you keep such things as the cartoons in a magic, censored vault you give them mystical power and luster. These stupid drawings should not be imbued with these qualities! The argument is for disseminating them.

Some great media outlets in the United States, in an excess of what I’m sure they see as prudence, which is a virtue, and not cowardice, which is a vice, have refused to show the cartoons or even today’s Charlie Hebdo cover. I am proud that The Wall Street Journal ran one of the cartoons with an editorial the day after the murders. The Fox News website has run some of them also. Here we give you the new Charlie Hebdo cover.

Today is a day, on all social media and in mainstream media, to show the cartoons. All their mystique should be taken away, definitively. And a message delivered: If you murder a group of people for wearing cats on their heads, you know what the murderer’s supporters will soon see? Streets full of people with cats on their heads.


Salman Rushdie, Meet Charlie Hebdo Free speech is more than a tradition. It’s the basis of civilization.

It was a sunny Tuesday in London, Valentine’s Day 1989. The phone rang in the novelist’s home. It was a BBC reporter. At first he was irritated: She didn’t even bother to tell him how she’d gotten his private number. “How does it feel,” she asked, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini ?”

“It doesn’t feel good,” Salman Rushdie, said. I am a dead man, he thought.

In a daze he walked around closing shutters, locking the front door. Witnessing his own fear he decided to keep a commitment to do a television interview. When he left the house he didn’t know it would be three years before he entered it again.

Walking into the studio he was handed a printout of the edict just released by the supreme leader of Iran: “I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the ‘Satanic Verses’ book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.”

"Je Suis Charlie"Mr. Rushdie read it. The interviewer asked him to respond.

“I wish I’d written a more critical book,” he said. He was ever after proud he said that, though in future years he occasionally wobbled under the pressure, as one would.

And so began his roughly 10 years in hiding, with heavy police protection, under an assumed name “Joseph Anton,” which is what he called his 2012 memoir, from which the above is taken.

Salman Rushdie had written a novel critical of Islam, and so he had to die. It was the first famous fatwa in the West.

I was a writer and producer at CBS News in New York, and I remember the general American reaction, which was bafflement: They’re threatening an artist for producing art? Who are these people? In the publishing world Mr. Rushdie’s became a celebrated cause, but to others he was not an entirely sympathetic figure—arrogant, a snooty lefty luvvie who wrote a rude book about the faith of his fathers and now they’re coming down on him like a ton of bricks. Remind me why I care?

Looking back, he was the canary in the coal mine. Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker and writer, was shot to death on the street and almost decapitated in November 2004, after his short film on women and Islam was broadcast on television. His collaborator, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, got death threats and eventually fled to America. Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who drew Muhammad with a bomb hidden in his turban, was a target of two assassination attempts and had to go into hiding.

And now the atrocity in Paris. Extremist Muslim fanatics cut down 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. Their crime too was insulting Islam.

What do we know now that we did not know when Mr. Rushdie was targeted? That extreme, militant Islamists continue to clash with the liberal West. That the West must see to it that its values are not compromised by the fears the murderers seek to spread.

Charlie Hebdo magazine has struck me as aimed at the immature, or at least the not fully formed. Its cartoons and other humor are broad and vulgar, even primitive, not witty or sly. The magazine delights in crudely, grossly insulting all faiths, especially Islam. But as a Westerner would say, so what? It has been alleged by a few people that the staff of Charlie Hebdo brought the tragedy on themselves. That is exactly what was said of Salman Rushdie, that he shouldn’t have written such an offensive book.

Maybe it would be instructive to look at how we in the West handle what is rude and unpleasant and offensive.

First, our freedoms are not merely our “traditions,” our “ways,” “reflective of Enlightenment assumptions” or “very pleasant.” In America especially, they are everything to us. Here freedom of expression is called free speech, and it is protected in the first of the Constitution’s amendments because it is the most important of our rights.

In the way that courage is the first of the virtues because without it none of the others are possible, the First Amendment protects the freedom upon which all others depend. Without free speech no difference of opinion can be resolved, no progress made in the law or in politics, no truth found and held high, no scandal unearthed and stopped.

But free speech takes patience. It requires us to hold our temper and give each other plenty of room in which to operate.

This is how we deal with offensive speech:

In the late 1980s, Andres Serrano produced “Piss Christ,” a photograph of a small crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. That didn’t go over well with a lot of Christians. They wrote op-eds, protested peacefully, and criticized the National Endowment for the Arts for subsidizing the work with tax money. The arguments were vigorous. But the protests were peaceful, and no one even dreamed of harming the artist.

In the late 1990s it was Chris Ofili, whose painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” depicted Mary surrounded by pornographic images and smeared with elephant dung. When it was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum it didn’t go over well with Catholics, including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The museum received public money. There were protests and arguments, the mayor withheld funds, the museum sued him and won. No one ever dreamed of harming the artist.

We resolve these things peacefully in the West. And this is not only “tradition.” We know on some level that this is how civilization keeps itself together. I remember long conversations during these controversies in which people tried to view the provocative works charitably. Maybe the artist is trying, awkwardly and imperfectly, to say something big and even good? Maybe he’s trying to say: “You say you love Christ but you don’t honor him.” Maybe he’s trying to say, “You say you honor Mary, but in your own actions and lives you cover her not with glory but dung.” Or maybe the artists were just talentless hacks producing the only thing they were good at: publicity.

The point is people considered and debated. They didn’t pick up a gun.

A singular feature of extremist Islamists is that they are not at all interested in persuasion. They don’t care about winning you over, only about making you submit. They want to menace and threaten. They want to frighten. They enjoy posing with the severed head.

It is the West’s job not to be overcome by fear, not to give an inch.

Steady is the word.

Tracked down by a reporter for Deutsche Welle after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Kurt Westergaard offered his wisdom. He said the murderers were “fanatics.” He told the media “not to be afraid” and not to “surrender” free speech. And he said he hoped for “a reaction from the moderate majority of Muslims against this attack.”

That majority actually exists, and should step forward.

Bring on 2015—We’re Ready and Hopeful Checking the mood of Boone Pickens, Dana Perino and others about the new year.

How are we feeling about 2015? With what attitude are people approaching the new year? What do they expect from it?

Let’s ask.

Yuval Levin, founding editor of National Affairs, says, “Maybe you know the old joke that a Jewish optimist is one who says, ‘Surely things can’t get worse than this,’ and a Jewish pessimist is one who answers: ‘Sure they can!’ Those are the two sides of my thinking about 2015. But that said, I’m approaching the new year with hope, which is not the same as optimism. Hope is not the expectation that things will turn around for the better, but the belief that they can. It invites not passive anticipation but active repair and restoration. Our country has shown an amazing capacity to recover from setbacks because we’ve shown an ability to act on hope.”

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels says New Year’s is like opening day at the ballpark. “Optimism comes naturally, and that’s a good thing, as no other operating philosophy makes any sense,” he says. You can be “wary” about the economy, Mr. Daniels adds, “worried” about terror threats or “weary” of partisan animus, but you still return to the questions: “What nation would you like to trade problems with? What era of history would you like to move to?”

The historian Amity Shlaes, presidential scholar at The King’s College in New York, is looking forward by looking back. “The Coco Chanel Rule is worth recalling in 2015: ‘Nothing is new, it is just forgotten.’ It’s sometimes rendered as ‘Nothing is original except what is forgotten.’ ” Ms. Shlaes calls this “an astounding statement from a creator universally venerated for her originality.” She adds, “A good resolution for 2015: Humility in art. A second resolution: Cause the forgotten to be remembered.”

*   *   *

New Year’s Eve fireworks in Sydney.

New Year’s Eve fireworks in Sydney.

Former Florida governor and possible presidential aspirant Jeb Bush sounded joyful in an evening email. “Regarding 2015, I am very optimistic. I think the DC political process might go back to working as it has for most of our nation’s existence. Regular order! Passing a budget. Allowing amendments to bills. Allowing the ‘ Nixon to China’ moments to go forward.” He said that he is “incredibly optimistic” about “our future because of the acceleration of innovation and technology in our lives. In spite of dysfunction in Washington, we are on the verge of being an emerging nation once again . . . dynamic, aspirational and young at heart.”

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman is also in an up mood. He says a confluence of factors makes 2015 “the best opportunity to help the American people through legislating” since the 1990s. “First is the new GOP majority in the Senate, which happened with voters looking for a change in partisan gridlock. Second is the accumulation of big and obvious structural problems to address, from a nonsensical tax code to a self-defeating trade policy to regulatory overreach and a fiscal time-bomb. And, finally, a realization by both parties that although the recovery may finally be here, it is leaving too many behind and these structural problems are a major reason.”

My Wall Street Journal colleague Mary Kissel says: “I feel an overwhelming sense of relief to say adieu to 2014. I’m optimistic that next year will be better—how could it be worse?” She sees the possibility for “incremental reforms in the 114th Congress. Some reform will be better than nothing.”

*   *   *

We got peppery energy pioneer and business magnate Boone Pickens on the phone from his office in Dallas.

He cleared his throat: “The media has given this goofy president a walk.”

He offered context for his mood: “What was it that did the most for the economy and got no credit? We had the cheapest energy in the world!” Also: “That’s a huge tax break for the consumer in America.”

He declared that he’s in an “upbeat” mood: “I’m a geologist and geologists are always optimistic because they drill so many dry holes, they better be optimistic.” The November election’s clear results raised his spirits considerably. “Then the goofball says ‘65% didn’t vote and those are the ones I represent!’ ”

Mr. Pickens said that, before the election, he was worried—“Have we lost America?” Asked if the country is rediscovering itself, he said, “Sure! America still belongs to America,” adding: “We have only another year of this bird to go.”

*   *   *

Legendary editor, now historian Harry Evans is bullish on 2015 because of technology. A high point in 2014: He and his book, “They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine,” were a question on “Jeopardy!” “Now I’m excited by what’s called ‘the intelligence of things,’ machines talking to machines. Just watch!”

We caught former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino in a mellow, reflective mood. What she is feeling right now is “abundance of gratitude, and gratitude for the abundance we have in America—our freedom, opportunity, conveniences.” She is thinking that from abundance and gratitude must come generosity—“being generous in thought and word to all who cross my path. The more grateful I am for the abundance available in America, the more generous I can be—which lifts my spirits and brings me more love, friends and opportunities.”

The great Vanity Fair special correspondent Maureen Orth reports, “I am feeling good about 2015,” in part because of Pope Francis . “I am looking forward to the follow-up to the phrase ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’ How will he top that zinger?” She’s looking forward to witnessing “the jockeying” among leaders on Capitol Hill if Francis accepts their invitation to address a joint session of Congress when he visits the U.S. this fall.

New York attorney Lloyd Green says he’s approaching the new year “extra hopefully.” At the end of a list of reasons, he adds, “Fishing. Heck, everyone should give fishing a shot. It’s about more than just the fish. There’s nothing like sunrise on the Atlantic on the open water. At that moment it lets me see the jolt of Creation, His majesty and sweep. And nothing beats fighting a fish and not knowing who is going to win.”

The writer Stephen Smith, former executive editor of Newsweek and editor of the Washington Examiner, is approaching 2015 seeing a return to social traditions. “I am heartened by the surge of young and old back to the cities, and by the radio-listening parties prompted by ‘Serial.’ People still want to be connected physically and culturally even as they connect online.”

Jeremy Shane, a Washington-based entrepreneur who has worked in energy, health and education, doesn’t characterize his attitude toward 2015, but shares some prophecies, saying that it will be “a clarifying year. The chaff will be separated from the wheat. The potentially vibrant will rise above the demonstrably decrepit, or be swallowed by it.”

We are seeing a confrontation “between new and old orders,” Mr. Shane says. Keep your eye on the anticorruption campaign in China—President Xi Jinping “will either professionalize the economic and local government elite” or not, but 2015 is the year “Xi breaks through or is neutered.” The outcome “will determine how the next 20 years go.” Another confrontation between new and old orders: “Pope Francis versus the Curia.”

Father Gerald Murray, pastor of Church of the Holy Family in New York City, sees the new year as, at bottom, another chance: “I look at 2015 as a new opportunity to make up for the wasted opportunities of the previous year. That prospect makes me glad that God has given me more time to get things right.”

Yes. Here’s to getting things right.

A Response to Bishop O’Hara

Now and then a writer hits a nerve. In the case of my column on the threatened closing of my neighborhood church, St. Thomas More, by the Archdiocese of New York, I hit some inflamed and throbbing ones.

Here is the column protesting church closings in the archdiocese, questioning the reasons behind them, and offering suggestions for alternative ways for the archdiocese to raise money.

Here is a reply from Bishop John O’Hara of the New York Archdiocese, printed as a letter to the editor in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal.

Bishop O’Hara also wrote an op-ed-style response in Sunday’s New York Post. It is not available online, but I will quote from it.

*   *   *

To clear away small things:

Bishop O’Hara says I imply the decision to close St. Thomas More has been made. I said it is “threatened.” It is. I asked Cardinal Timothy Dolan, New York’s archbishop, to save it. He can.

The bishop says I committed “a deliberate injustice” to the cardinal by implying the cost of the ongoing $180 million refurbishment of St. Patrick’s Cathedral has added to the archdiocese’s financial pressures. But it has added to those pressures: It is not paid for. How is it an injustice to point that out? The bishop says the cardinal “has spent countless hours” fundraising. I am certain this is true, and certain everyone feels sympathy for his efforts to turn pledges and promises into checks.

Bishop O’Hara suggests there are too many churches in our general neighborhood. I promise the bishop, Upper East Siders are precisely the kind of people who need a lot of churches and a whole lot of sacraments. But in terms of the larger church, three or four functioning parishes in a small area is our glory, not our disability. And if the archdiocese looked closer, they would see that each church has different jobs and offers different programs. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, a very great church also threatened with closing, offers masses and spiritual care for the deaf. St. Ignatius Loyola runs admired schools and offers a majestic setting for those who like majesty. All these churches are separate and complementary.

*   *   *

In an unfortunate and, I’m sorry to say, cheap twisting of words, the bishop suggests I hold a bias toward those he calls the “rich.” Readers can judge for themselves. Here I take the opportunity to clarify what I mean by excellence in a parish church. St. Thomas More is “excellent” because it is alive, spreads the word of Christ to young and old of all condition and circumstance, is a steward and local citizen, and manages not only to pay its bills but contribute to the archdiocese. It is a believing and vital part of the body of Christ, and its excellence should not be punished but encouraged.

It appears, however, to be in a position similar to the charter schools in the de Blasio era: They serve their needy students brilliantly, but they receive some encouragement and funds from the affluent, so they are targeted in the name of “fairness.”

*   *   *

To larger issues:

In my column, I wrote that if gaining new funds for the archdiocese through the sale of real estate (in the form of shuttered churches) is a rationale for the closings, the archdiocese should instead consider selling the cardinal’s splendid 15,000-foot mansion on Madison Avenue. That would have the benefit of more closely aligning the church of New York with the modest style of Pope Francis in Rome.

Bishop O’Hara responds, in the Journal: “It is unclear how she envisions removing a portion of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and putting it up for sale, because the residence is not only a landmarked property, but it is also, literally, a part of the cathedral.”

Everyone knows the residence is landmarked because the archdiocese has for so many years spread that fact around as an excuse not to sell it. Is it a good excuse? Here is an explanation of landmarking law from New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Here is an explanation of regulation from the National Register of Historic Places. From the register’s website: “There are no restrictions on the use, treatment, transfer, or disposition” of listed properties.

Landmarking protects buildings from being demolished or dramatically altered, usually externally, without permission. It also generally limits air rights, which the bishop does not mention in either of his replies. But buildings that are landmarked can be sold, or rented.

CNN some time back estimated the market value of the cardinal’s mansion at $30 million “as is”—for the building itself, in its current condition. That was a few months into New York’s high-end real estate boom, which continues to quicken.

As for the assertion that the mansion is part of the cathedral, or in it, or on top of or underneath it—my goodness. There is a picture of the mansion in the CNN piece above; readers can judge for themselves what the mansion is. It was not built as “part” of the cathedral but added on to it six years later. It operates as a structure connected to but in all practical ways independent of the cathedral. I add that I know the mansion fairly well, having met with and interviewed Cardinal John O’Connor there. He was a great man, a tender-hearted leader who admitted he wasn’t so good with the books but tried hard to keep every part of the greater church alive.

In short, the cardinal’s Madison Avenue mansion could probably be sold or rented if the archdiocese had a mind to do so.

I add here that the archdiocesan headquarters at 1011 First Avenue, where they make the decisions to close local churches, could also be shuttered to the archdiocese’s profit, and the headquarters moved to neighborhoods and boroughs that could use the boost.

The bishop’s interest in landmarking has an echo in the frantic attempts of some of the threatened parish churches to protect themselves by gaining landmark status. They do this in an attempt to keep themselves from being demolished. But the landmarking process takes time. It is widely suspected in the parishes that they were given only a few months to defend themselves against closure because the archdiocese knew the landmarking process takes years.

*   *   *

I raised in my column the myriad financial demands faced by the archdiocese, including the costs the past 20 or so years of fees and payments associated with the clergy sex scandals.

Bishop O’Hara, in the New York Post: “She resorts to the usual criticisms of the Church. While she mentions the cost of sexual abuse cases, she must know that such is not the case for the Archdiocese of New York, which has not had to pay large settlements. . . . The situation in New York is completely different than the one found in Boston, where a decade ago Cardinal [Sean] O’Malley did sell the estate that included the residence for the archbishop of Boston, motivated by a need to pay sex abuse settlements (which we have not had here in New York).”

As a loyal Catholic, I have been writing about the clergy sex-abuse scandals since the 1990s. Because of that, I have many times faced personal and professional abuse from the church hierarchy. But I have never heard a bishop defend an archdiocese by saying, in effect, “We’re not as bad as Boston!”

Being better in this regard than Boston, whose cardinal, Bernard Law, in 2002 had to skip town to dodge state troopers with subpoenas, is not something to brag about. This is taking traditional rivalries between the two cities too far.

It is hard to know the exact cost of the scandals in New York. The last time the New York Archdiocese released numbers on the costs was 11 years ago, in 2004. It admitted, as reported in the New York Times, that it had paid $6.2 million to abuse victims for counseling and legal settlements, $1.1 million for treatment for clerics, and more than a million dollars in legal fees. The archdiocese’s insurers paid another $4.2 million toward victim settlements. Joe Zwilling, the archdioceses spokesman, said that 136 people had made accusations of abuse.

More-recent accusations can be found at

It is true that New York had a lower abuse rate than Boston’s. It is also true that the reason for this is New York law. “The Archdiocese of New York got off very easily compared to other dioceses around the country solely because of the statute in New York which harshly restricts the ability of abuse victims to sue,” said Paul Mones, a children’s rights advocate and sexual abuse lawyer, in a telephone interview. “There were numerous victims in the New York Archdiocese and the Dioceses of Rockville Center and Brooklyn, but they never got their day in court because of the statute of limitations.” Other states during the scandals opened up one- to three-year “windows” in which anyone who had been abused could seek legal redress. “A bill to do the same in New York has repeatedly been defeated for the last several years, largely because of the lobbying of the church,” said Mr. Mones.

The clergy abuse scandals have cost the New York Archdiocese much-needed money. Settlements were paid. That money would be welcome now, and could be part of saving local churches.

*   *   *

A last point.

In his response in the Post, Bishop O’Hara, attempting to show how hard the archdiocese has engaged with parishioners, speaks of meetings he had after two masses at St. Thomas More. “In fact, at one of these meetings, a parishioner suggested that a merger between St. Thomas More and Our Lady of Good Council Parish might make more sense for a variety of reasons, and this suggestion will be given serious consideration.” Further down he adds, “Merging St. Thomas More parish with a neighboring parish is not so farfetched a recommendation as Noonan would have people believe.”

I spoke to Bishop O’Hara by telephone for more than 45 minutes two days after the meeting he cites and a day before I wrote my column. In that conversation I argued against the closing of St. Thomas More and its proposed merging with St. Ignatius, and put forward the idea of keeping St. Thomas More alive and formally or informally merging it with Our Lady of Good Council, which would also be kept alive. The bishop sounded startled by this proposal, and asked if the parishes would go for it. I said I spoke for no one but myself but the members of both parishes would, I guessed, do anything to keep their churches alive.

It is peculiar that Bishop O’Hara accuses me of considering “farfetched” a proposal I put forward to him. I really can’t think of a good reason he’d do that.

Cardinal, Please Spare This Church St. Thomas More is at the center of the spiritual life of Catholics on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The Archdiocese of New York is threatening to close down my little church, a jewel in Catholicism’s crown on 89th Street just off Madison, in Carnegie Hill, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. This has caused great pain in our neighborhood this Christmas. St. Thomas More Church is where my son made his first holy communion, where he was confirmed. It is where at the presentation of the cross, on Good Friday, everyone in the parish who wants to—and that is everyone in the parish, poor people, crazy people, people just holding on, housekeepers, shopkeepers, billionaires—stands on line together, as equals, as brothers and sisters, to kiss the foot of the cross. It always makes me cry.

None of this is important except multiply it by 5,000, 10,000, a million people who’ve walked through our doors the past 75 years to marry, to bury, to worship.

There is context, of course, and context must always be respected. New York isn’t the only place that is or will be closing churches, so the story may have some national application.

The Church of St. Thomas More

The Rev. Kevin V. Madigan celebrates Mass at the Church of St. Thomas More in New York City, Dec. 14.

The Catholic Church, the greatest refuge of the poor in the history of the world, is always in need of money. The New York Archdiocese itself supports schools, hospitals, charities, churches, orders. It is in constant need. There is the refurbishment of mighty St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which has been extremely expensive. There has been the cost, the past 20 years, of all the settlements and legal fees associated with the sex scandals. Compounding this is the constant bureaucratic challenge to manage resources efficiently, professionally.

The church must save where it can. Churches have been closed. Most had particular stresses in common. Some lost parishioners due to demographic change and a peeling off of the faithful. Some cannot support themselves financially and become a drain on the archdiocese. Some churches have fallen behind in repair and have become structurally dangerous. Some lost their place in the heart and life of their communities.

But the great mystery at the heart of the threatened closing of St. Thomas is that none of these criteria apply to it. Not one.

St. Thomas More Church is not empty, it is vital, vibrant and alive. The other day at a special Mass, the standing room only crowd spilled out onto the steps. People move into—and stay in—Carnegie Hill just for the church. Almost half the people at Sunday mass take long car and subway rides to worship there. (All this is from a list of facts about the church put together by its desperate parishioners.)

St. Thomas More not only supports itself financially, it gives money back to the archdiocese. It’s not structurally unsound, it has just completed a major and costly refurbishment. It hasn’t lost its school, it has a full, lively, respected preschool in the basement that families are desperate to get into. It is the sacramental home of all the Catholic schools in the area that don’t have their own church or chapel. It is “a powerhouse of lay involvement in the spirit of Vatican II,” says the parishioners’ fact sheet, with a large parish council and four separate Catholic instruction programs for children. More can be said but at its heart it is a place for families, many of them old-style Catholics with four and five kids. Coffee hour after the 10 a.m. children’s Mass is jammed.

St. Thomas More functions too as a town hall for every secular group in the area. It is a meetinghouse for all of them. It is a citizen.

Our cardinal, my friend Timothy Dolan, being from Milwaukee, would not know, and the members of his many clusters and advisory boards would not know, that St. Thomas More is a mother root of the spiritual life of the Catholics on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

They’re not talking about the closing of a church but the destroying of a world.

And for what? The archdiocese’s arguments have been varied and lacking. They say there are other churches close by, that St. Thomas More can be relieved of its duties, blended and “merged” with the church of St. Ignatius. But St. Ignatius is near overwhelmed with its own schools and parish life, and could not absorb St. Thomas More’s functions and programs.

The archdiocese then argues there is a shortage of priests. But St. Thomas More raises priests, three vocations born there the past 20 years. The cardinal’s top media man, Joe Zwilling, last weekend pointed at St. Thomas More and asked, “What will you do in 20 years when there’s no priest” to lead it? Well, over 20 years, in a church founded on miracles, we’ll pray for vocations. More to the point, as one active friend of the archdiocese said to me, “In what way does closing a vital parish create more priests? Please share the logic.”

Yes. Please.

The archdiocese appears to be scrambling for a respectable rationale. In the meantime parishioners wonder about the reasons for what they’ve come to call the second beheading of Thomas More.

Is it possible, they ask, the archdiocese is driven by what drove Henry VIII, politics and real estate?

That is an uncharitable thought. Let’s explore it.

The archdiocese is defensive about closing churches in poor areas. What better way to comfort themselves, and avoid bad press, than closing one in an affluent area? Mr. Zwilling told this newspaper “it would be wrong and unjust” if only less affluent parishes were closed. To me, more sharply, Mr. Zwilling said just because St. Thomas More is in the black doesn’t mean it is “protected.”

The cardinal himself told one parishioner he sees it as a matter of fairness. “I can’t just close poor parishes,” the parishioner quoted him as saying. The parishioner responded, “Poor people are not helped because rich people are hurt.”

All this seems in line with the de Blasio-ization of the times: pick a target, move against it. Especially move on excellence, which can be painted as “elitist.” If you can’t help the poor you can at least afflict those you imagine to be rich.

Real estate? If St. Thomas More is closed it can be sold. New York is experiencing a real-estate boom, Carnegie Hill is desirable. The church and its land could bring in $50 million, maybe $100 million. Any number of developers would jump at the chance. It’s rumored—rumored—any number have.

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In a true spirit of helpfulness some members of St. Thomas More have searched for ways to keep their church alive, give even more money to the archdiocese and help it show greater, deeper affiliation with the needy. The cardinal could sell his grand private mansion in Midtown, just down the street from what has been assessed the most valuable piece of real estate in the city, Saks Fifth Avenue, judged to be worth almost $4 billion. Think of what the cardinal’s mansion would sell or rent for! That would take care of everything. This is what Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley did: sell the cardinal’s estate. He lives now in a small apartment in a modest part of town.

But that and other ideas can be explored in future columns. For now, Merry Christmas. May peace and love descend on all.

The Cuban Regime Is a Defeated Foe In time, normalized relations will serve the cause of freedom.

If a change in policy is in the American national interest, then it is a good idea. If it is not, then it is a bad idea, and something we should not do.

In another era that would be so obvious as not to bear repeating. But seeing to our national interests (just as we expect other nations to see to theirs) has been rather lost along the way by our leaders the past dozen years, and now sounds almost touchingly quaint.

But with that guiding principle, some questions on establishing new and closer ties with Cuba:

Was it ever in our nation’s interests to have, 90 miles off our shore, an avowed and active enemy?


Is it now in our nation’s interests to have, 90 miles off our shore, an avowed and active enemy?


Is it in the national interest to attempt to change this circumstance, if only gradually and hopefully, but with a sense that breaking the status quo might yield rewards?

Yes. If the new policy succeeds and leaves an old foe less active and avowed we will be better off, and it’s always possible, life being surprising, that we’ll be much better off. If the policy fails we’ll be no worse off than we were and can revert back to the old order, yanking out our embassy and re-erecting old barriers.

Uncle Sam & Li'l CubaGreat nations are like people. We get in habits of affection and enmity. What is needed is a practice of detached realism. Sometimes those for whom you have affection are disappointing. Sometimes those toward whom you feel enmity are, you realize, an essentially defeated foe, and a new attitude might be constructive. The key is to keep eyes sharp for changed situations, and adapt.

Fidel Castro is a bad man who took an almost-paradise and turned it into a floating prison. In replacing a dictatorship whose corruption was happily leavened by incompetence, he created a communist totalitarian state that made everything in his country worse. He robbed it of wealth, beauty and potential freedom. He was also a thorn and a threat to the United States, which he hated and moved against in myriad ways. He did all this for more than half a century.

Soon he will die, and his brother supposedly has taken his place. That is a changed situation.

Normalizing relations with Cuba will not, as Sen. Marco Rubio passionately put it in these pages, grant the Castro regime “legitimacy.”

Nothing can grant it legitimacy.

Fidel Castro ruined his country for a dead ideology and the whole world knows it. It may be closer to the truth to see the Castro brothers’ eagerness for normalization as an admission that they’ve run out their string. They’ve lost everything that kept them alive, from the Soviet Union to once-oil-rich Venezuela. The Castro government is stuck. Their economy is nothing. They have no strength. They enjoy vestigial respect from certain quarters, but only vestigial. They’ve lost and they know it.

So why not move now?

Nothing magical will immediately follow normalization. The Castro brothers will not say, “I can’t believe it, free markets and democracy really are better, I had no idea!” Nothing will make Cuba democratic overnight. But American involvement and presence—American tourists and businessmen, American diplomats, American money, American ways and technology—will likely in time have a freeing effect. With increased contact a certain amount of good feeling will build. And that could make Cuba, within a generation or even less, a friend.

And that would be good for the American national interest, because it’s better to have a friend 90 miles away than an active and avowed enemy.

The opening to Cuba may also spark a re-Christianizing effect among a people who’ve been denied freedom of religious worship for generations. That would be good too, for them and us.

There is no reason to believe increased engagement between America and Cuba would encourage a post-Castro government to be more antagonistic or aggressive toward the U.S. More movement and commerce, including media presence, will not give that government more motive to embarrass itself by abusing and oppressing its people. As for the military, it wouldn’t be long, with lifted embargoes, before captains in the Cuban army found out what managers in the new Hilton were making, and jumped into hotel services.

With a real opening, including lifted embargoes, all the pressure year by year would be toward more back-and-forth, greater prosperity, and more freedom squeaking in by Internet and television.

In a rising Cuba all the pressure will be toward freedom. It will not be toward dictatorship.

In America, attention has rightly been paid to the Cuban-Americans of Florida and their reaction. They were cruelly displaced by the communist regime and forced to flee Cuba. They lost everything, came here penniless, and through gifts and guts rose to economic and political power. The oldest, who came in 1960, feel bitterness—and are loyal to that bitterness. Their children, a little less so, and the next generation less still. Because everything changes. You can’t let a foreign policy be governed by bitterness even when that bitterness is legitimate. Advice to the U.S. government: Attempt in time to create some kind of U.S.-Cuban framework whereby those whose property was expropriated can reclaim it.

President Obama’s opening seems so far cleverly done and well wired. He has major cover from the involvement of the most popular pope in recorded history, and also from the government of Canada, an ever-popular country whose prime minister, the sturdy, steady Stephen Harper , is the most quietly effective head of government in the Northern Hemisphere.

It is to be stipulated that the particulars of the deal will prove, on inspection, to be unimpressive, because Mr Obama was the negotiator. Fair enough, but he said when he first ran for president, in 2008, that he hoped for a new kind of engagement with Cuba, and he is producing it.

Something to watch out for: When an administration goes all in on a controversial policy it tends to spend most of its follow-up time not making sure the policy works but proving, through occasionally specious data and assertions, that it was the right policy. All who judge how the new opening proceeds will have to factor that in and see past it.

A closing note: I always thought, life often being unfair, that Fidel Castro would die the death of a happy monster, old, in bed, a cigar jutting out from the pillows, a brandy on the bedside table. My dream the past few years was that this tranquil end would be disturbed by this scene: American tourists jumping up and down outside his window, snapping pictures on their smartphones. American tourists flooding the island, befriending his people, doing business with them, showing in their attitude and through a million conversations which system is, actually, preferable. Castro sees them through the window. He grits his teeth so hard the cigar snaps off. Money and sentiment defeat his life’s work. He leaves the world knowing that in history’s great game, he lost.

Open the doors, let America flood the zone and snap those pictures. “Fidel! Look this way!” Snap. Flash. Gone.

A Flawed Report’s Important Lesson Americans regardless of party should agree torture is wrong.

The “torture report” exists. It shouldn’t—a better, more comprehensive, historically deeper and less partisan document should have been produced, and then held close for mandatory reading by all pertinent current and future officials—but it’s there. Anyone in the world who wants to read it can do a full download, and think what they think.

Its overall content left me thinking of a conversation in the summer of 1988 with the pollster Bob Teeter, a thoughtful man who worked for George Bush ’s presidential campaign, as I did. I asked if he ever found things in polls that he wasn’t looking for and that surprised him. Bob got his Thinking Look, and paused. Yes, he said, here’s one: The American people don’t like the Japanese.

It surprised him, and me, and I asked what he thought it was about.

President Nixon greets John McCain

President Nixon greets John McCain in May 1973 after the Navy pilot’s release by theNorth Vietnamese, who had held him as a prisoner of war for more than five years.

He didn’t think it was economic—he saw in the data that Americans admired Japan’s then-rising economy. He didn’t think it was World War II per se—he didn’t find quite the same kind of responses about Germany. We were quiet for a moment, and then our minds went to exactly the same place at the same time: Japanese torture of American soldiers in the Pacific war. The terrible, vicious barbarity of it. When the war ended, American boys went home, and the story of what they’d seen, experienced and heard filtered through families, workplaces and VFW halls. More than 40 years later, maybe it was still there, showing up in a poll.

It was just our guess, but I think a good one. A nation’s reputation in the world will not soon recover from such cruel, systemic actions, which seemed to bubble up from a culture. You’ll pay a price in terms of the world’s regard.

This is one of the reasons, only a practical one, torture is bad. It makes people lose respect for you. And when you come most deeply to terms with it, it can make you lose respect for you, too.

The arguments over the deficiencies of the torture report—we’ll get to some in a moment—have in a way overwhelmed that point.

But America should never again do what is asserted and outlined in the report, which enumerates various incidents of what I believe must honestly be called torture. American policy should be to treat prisoners the way we would hope—with clear eyes, knowing it is a hope—our prisoners would be treated.

The war we are engaged in is different, we know, and it is still going on and will be for some time, but it won’t help us fight it to become less like ourselves and more like those we oppose. Torture is not like us. It’s not part of the American DNA. We think of ourselves as better than that because we’ve been better than that.

It is almost childish to say it, yet children sometimes see obvious truths. We can’t use torture methods and still at the same time be the hope of the world. You’re an animal like the other animals or you’re something different, something higher, and known to be different and higher.

Someone has to be the good guy. For a long time in the world that has been our role. You might say it bubbled up from our culture.

We should not judge those who, in the months and years after 9/11, did what they thought necessary to forestall further attacks on America’s civilian population. They went with the legal guidance they had, propelled by the anxiety we all experienced. “There was no operating manual to guide the choices and decisions made by the men and women in charge of protecting us,” wrote former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey this week in USA Today. None of them should be abused, embarrassed or prosecuted now.

But who is more hawkish and concerned about our security than Sen. John McCain , and who has more standing on the subject of torture, having been tortured over 5½ years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam? He was denied medical treatment, starved, beaten, his arm rebroken and his ribs shattered; he was made to stand and put in stress positions, and put in solitary confinement for two years. This week on the floor of the Senate, he said the kind of practices outlined in the report, whose issuance he supported, do not produce actionable intelligence and “actually damage our security interests as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.” He added: “The use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.”

What the report contains is believable but insufficient; it’s not the whole story, it’s part of the story. Those involved in the episodes outlined should have been interviewed, and were not. The investigation and report should have been conducted so that they could win full bipartisan involvement and support, and were not.

The most stinging critique came from Mr. Kerrey, a Democrat who served eight years on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which issued the report. In his USA Today piece he slammed the report’s partisanship: “I do not need to read the report to know that the Democratic staff alone wrote it.” The Republicans refused to take part “when they determined that their counterparts started out with the premise that the CIA was guilty and then worked to prove it.”

The purpose of the committee is “to stand above the fray and render balanced judgments,” but “this committee departed from that high road.”

As for not interviewing all individuals involved, the committee staff’s rationale—“that some officers were under investigation and could not be made available—is not persuasive.” Most officers were not under investigation, and those who were saw the process end in 2012.

Worse, wrote Mr. Kerrey, is the “disturbing fact” that the report “contains no recommendations. This is perhaps the most significant missed opportunity, because no one would claim the program was perfect or without its problems.” At the same time, he said, no one with real experience would claim it was completely ineffective. “Our intelligence personnel—who are once again on the front lines fighting the Islamic State—need recommended guidance from their board of governors: The U.S. Congress.”

There are more questions about the report. One is that it is generally understood to reflect longstanding tensions between the committee and the CIA. Another is the timing—the report was issued just as a defeated Democratic majority walked out the door, and has the look of a last, lobbed stink bomb: “See what the terrible Bush administration did? Bye now!” There is about the entire enterprise a sense of sin being expiated at someone else’s expense. The committee’s job is to oversee the CIA. If its own report is true, it didn’t do a very good job.

It can be hard to take seriously a report that seems largely a product of partisan resentment, guilt and blame shifting. And yet it outlines believable incidents of what is clearly torture.

The report is out there. If any good comes of it, it can be as a final demarcation between an old way of operating and a new one.

Can the GOP Find Unity and Purpose? The Democrats are divided. The Republicans need to resist Obama’s provocations.

Take no bait. Act independently and in accord with national priorities. Cause no pointless trouble. If there’s trouble, it should have a clear, understandable, defendable purpose.

That is general advice for the new Republican congressional majority. They will be proving every day they’re a serious governing alternative to the Democratic-dominated establishment that has run Washington for six years.

The Republicans are being told they are a deeply divided party. True enough. But another way to look at it may prove more pertinent: “My father’s house has many mansions.” The GOP is showing early signs of actually gathering together again a functioning coalition. The white working class, according to the last election, has joined, at least for now. Coalitions are messy; they have many, often opposing, pieces. FDR ’s included New York socialists, Southern segregationists, Dust Bowl Okies and West Virginia coal miners. But politics is a game of addition and Republicans are adding. They may owe it only to President Obama, but still: His leadership has been an emanation of progressive thought. And a coalition formed by reaction and rejection is still a coalition.

Bull FightingRepublicans on the Hill now by habit see their adversaries as The Monolith. But it is the Democrats who are increasingly riven, divided and unhappy.

They are rocked by defeat, newly confused as to their own meaning. They’re disappointed with each other, and angry. They know Harry Reid is a poor face of the party, a small-town undertaker who never gets around to telling you the cost of the casket. They have little faith in the strategic and tactical leadership coming from the White House. They recognize the president as an albatross around their necks. Nancy Pelosi is an attractive, noncredible partisan who just natters wordage.

That’s what they’ve got: an undertaker, an albatross, a natterer.

Democrats are individually trying to place themselves right with their own base, which grows more leftishly restive and is losing them the center. They’re trying to figure out how to cleave to that base while remaining politically viable.

The sophisticated and sober-minded GOP class should understand that the national press is dying to impose a story line: extremist, intransigent ideologues come to Washington to defy the president. It’s important to them that the Republicans be the bad guys. If the president can’t quite be painted as the good guy, at least he can be portrayed as the more nuanced and interesting figure, the historic president beset by smaller foes in his last two years.

But the president isn’t the story. That’s what the Republicans need to know. The story is what they make of their new power.

The president wants to be the story. He wants to be the matador taunting the bull with the red cape. He wants to draw the GOP into strange, dramatic impasses. They should not snort, paw the ground and charge. They should shake their heads, smile and gesture to the crowd: “Can you believe this guy?”

Americans have moved on. They want results from the people they just elected. The new Republican majority should try, within the limits imposed by not holding the executive branch, to make progress on their own. They shouldn’t be drawn into the president’s drama, they should act independently. They’re telling their own story. They should comport themselves as if they know the difference between yesterday and tomorrow.

Early on they should take a good, small bill, an economic measure that Republicans will and moderate Democrats can support. They should try very hard to do what the president didn’t do: show bipartisan respect, work with the other side, put out your hand. They should get that bill briskly through the House and Senate. If the president vetoes it, they should attempt to override. If they succeed, they’ve made good law. If they don’t, they try again. In time people will see the culprit, the impediment.

Meantime the president has disasters on his hands. His executive action on immigration, seen by many as daring and clever, may not prove clever. It is assumed he scored points for his party, or his legacy, by granting a form of amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. But did he? In making that move he removed one of the Republican Party’s problems. They were split on immigration, their adversaries said the reason was racism. The whole issue roiled the Republican base.

Now the president has taken it out of their hands. And he has united them in their condemnation of the manner in which he did it.

At the same time the president took an issue that was a daily, agitating mobilizer of his base and removed it as a factor. He took the kettle off the heat—but that kettle had produced a lot of steam that provided energy to his party.

Now the president has to implement his directive, and implementation has never been his strong suit. He has to tamp down grievances from those who came here legally or are waiting in line. He has to answer immigration activists who think they got too little. He has to face all the critics who will experience and witness the downside of his action on the border.

He took an issue that was a problem for Republicans, and made it a problem for Democrats. That may well prove a political mistake of the first order.

Last week New York’s Chuck Schumer, the third most senior Democrat in the Senate, spoke of a different political mistake. In a speech, he said the Democrats were trounced in 2014 because Mr. Obama wrongly staked everything on ObamaCare. Democrats thus “blew the opportunity” the voters gave them in 2008: “Americans were crying out for an end to the recession, for better wages and more jobs, not for changes in their health care. . . . Had we started more broadly, the middle class would have been more receptive to the idea that President Obama wanted to help them.”

After Mr. Schumer came Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, one of the architects of the ObamaCare law, who told Alexander Bolton of the Hill that it was probably too “complicated. . . . I look back and say we should have either done it the correct way or not done anything at all.”

Then came the reliably interesting former Sen. James Webb of Virginia, a possible presidential candidate. He told a press group in Richmond that the Democratic Party has lost its way. It lost white working-class voters by becoming “a party of interest groups.” As reported in the Washington Post, Mr. Webb said: “The Democratic Party has lost the message that made it such a great party for so many years . . . take care of working people, take care of the people who have no voice in the corridors of power, no matter their race, ethnicity or any other reason.”

He is exactly right. In the Obama era the Democratic Party has gone from being a party of people to a party of issues, such as global warming, and the pressure groups—and billionaires—that push them.

It has become bloodless.

You know how Republicans should be feeling, for the first time in 10 years? Confident. For all their problems, they still have a pulse.

The Nihilist in the White House This administration doesn’t build, it divides and tears down. Vindication is assumed.

There is an odd, magical-thinking element in the psychology of recent White Houses. It is now common for those within them to assume that history will declare their greatness down the road. They proceed as if this is automatic, guaranteed: They will leave someday, history will ponder their accomplishments and announce their genius.

The assumption of history’s inevitable vindication is sharper in the current White House, due to general conceit—they really do think they possess a higher wisdom and play a deeper game—and the expectation that liberal historians will write the history.

The illusion becomes a form of license. We don’t have to listen to critics, adversaries, worriers and warn-ers, we just have to force through our higher vision and let history say down the road we got it right.

They make this assumption because they don’t know much about history—they really are people who saw the movie but didn’t read the book—and because historical vindication is what happened so spectacularly in the case of Ronald Reagan. So it will happen to them, too.

Reagan had a hard, tough presidency during which his approval rating averaged around 53%. By the end of his presidency he was patronized—over, yesterday. His own people, I among them, made teasing fun of him; we all did imitations and laughed at his foibles. His was not a White House full of awed people. Even he wasn’t awed by him. How things change.

The hearse carrying the body of Ronald Reagan

The hearse carrying the body of Ronald Reagan in Simi Valley, Calif., June 11, 2004.

In the years after Reagan’s presidency his reputation experienced a reversal in public fortune. He came to be acknowledged as a truly great president. The fall of the Soviet Union was an epic moment in human history, the reigniting of the American economy brought a world of material and political implications, his ability to work with an often mean-minded Congress yielded something constructive, and even soothing, to the national psyche: Yes, things can still work.

And there was the liberating factor of his funeral in June 2004, which brought a great national outpouring. They thronged to Washington and slept on the street to say goodbye, in California they went to U.S. Highway 101 to stand and hold signs—“Thanks, Dutch”—and wave flags. Nancy Reagan told me she would never forget the Vietnam War vet who put on his old uniform and stood on the side of the road, saluting the motorcade as it passed.

The outpouring took the media aback, and changed the nature of their coverage. More important, seeing what was happening gave the American people a kind of permission to express what they’d long believed: This was a great man.

Now when Gallup lists its greatest and most admired presidents Ronald Reagan is up there with Lincoln.

A similar vindication happened with Harry Truman, though it took longer. The historian David McCullough rescued his reputation with a 1992 biography that indelibly captured Truman’s greatness—the Marshall Plan, the creation of an early, constructive strategy toward the Soviets, the bringing along, in all of this, of resistant congressional Republicans. Truman’s was not a perfect presidency, any more than Reagan’s—plenty of flaws and failures in both. But he was the last Democratic president Ronald Reagan campaigned for, in 1948, and the one he most loved to quote, devilishly but sincerely, as president.

Historical vindication happens. The Obama White House assumes it will happen to them. Thus they can do pretty much what they want.

What they forget is that facts largely decide what history thinks—outcomes, what happened, what it means. What they also forget, or perhaps never knew, is that the great ones are always constructive. They don’t divide and tear down. They build, gather in, create, bend, meld, and in so doing move things forward.

That’s not this crowd.

This White House seems driven—does it understand this?—by a kind of political nihilism. They agitate, aggravate, fray and separate.

Look at three great domestic issues just the past few weeks.

ObamaCare, whose very legitimacy was half killed by the lie that “If you like your plan, you can keep it,” and later by the incompetence of its implementation, has been done in now by the mindless, highhanded bragging of a technocrat who helped build it, and who amused himself the past few years explaining that the law’s passage was secured only by lies, and the lies were effective because the American people are stupid. Jonah Goldberg of National Review had a great point the other day: They build a thing so impenetrable, so deliberately impossible for any normal person to understand, and then they denigrate them behind their backs for not understanding.

I don’t know how ObamaCare will go, but it won’t last as it is. If the White House had wisdom, they’d declare that they’d won on the essential argument—health coverage is a right for all—and go back to the drawing board with Congress. The only part of the ObamaCare law that is popular is its intention, not its reality. The White House should declare victory and redraw the bill. But the White House is a wisdom-free zone.

The president’s executive action on immigration is an act of willful nihilism that he himself had argued against in the past. It is a sharp stick in the eye of the new congressional majority. It is at odds with—it defies—the meaning and message of the last election, and therefore is destructive to the reputation of democracy itself. It is huge in its impact but has only a sole cause, the president’s lone will. It damages the standing of our tottery political institutions rather than strengthening them, which is what they desperately need, and sets a template for future executive abuse. It will surely encourage increased illegal immigration and thus further erode the position of the American working class.

And there is the Keystone XL pipeline and the administration’s apparent intent to veto a bill that allows it. There the issue is not only the jobs the pipeline would create, and not only the infrastructure element. It is something more. If it is done right, the people who build the pipeline could be pressed to take on young men—skill-less, aimless—and get them learning, as part of a crew, how things are built and what it is to be a man who builds them.

On top of that, the building of the pipeline would show the world that America is capable of coming back, that we’re not only aware of our good fortune and engineering genius, we are pushing it hard into the future. America’s got her hard-hat on again. America is dynamic. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Not just this endless talk of limits, restrictions, fears and “Oh, we’re all going to melt in the warm global future!”

Which is sort of the spirit of this White House.

Great presidencies have a different one. They expand, move on, reach out.

The future acknowledgment of greatness only follows actual greatness. History takes the long view but in the end relies on facts.

“But history will be written by liberals.” Fair enough, and they will judge the president the more harshly because he failed to do anything that lasts. ObamaCare will be corrected and torn down piece by piece. The immigration order will be changed, slowed or undone by the courts, Congress or through executive actions down the road. Keystone will pass and a veto overridden.

And the president has failed liberals through unpopularity, which is another word for incompetence.