Peggy Noonan

Columns, pieces and posts

The 2016 Battle Heats Up Already Mrs. Clinton just made a serious nomination challenge a lot more likely.

I think things just got sparky, a term I once heard a military figure use to denote a battle that has both commenced and turned hot.

In her interview in The Atlantic, with Jeffrey Goldberg, Hillary Clinton sounded as burly and hawkish on foreign policy as John McCain. That’s not a surprise to longtime Hillary observers, though that she chose to declare it so uncompromisingly at so early a point in the 2016 presidential cycle, is. Mrs. Clinton came into politics from the McGovern wing of her party, but that was long ago. She has been more publicly hawkish since she ran for the U.S. Senate in New York in 2000 and 9/11 happened a year later. She famously voted for the Iraq war, which opened up running room for a young man named Barack Obama.

Everyone knew that Mrs. Clinton would have to detach herself politically from Mr. Obama, an increasingly unpopular president. But she was his secretary of state for four years, so the distancing would have to be done with some deftness and delicacy, and deeper into the election cycle, not now. Instead, it was done with blunt force. In the interview Mrs. Clinton went square at the president’s foreign-policy vision, or lack of it. “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff,’ is not an organizing principle.” This is both true and well stated, but it is remarkable to hear it from, again, a person who until February 2013 was his secretary of state, presumably an intimate and part of the creation of his foreign policy.

Just as remarkable, by throwing down this gauntlet Mrs. Clinton starts an argument within her party that might have been inevitable but certainly could have been delayed and, with pleas for unity, softened. By starting the argument now she gives time, space and reason for a progressive Democratic opponent to arise.

*   *   *

The 2016 Democratic presidential cycle has begun with this interview and has begun early.

The tone and content of Mrs. Clinton’s remarks seem to assume a Democratic Party base that is or will prove to be in broad agreement with her hawkishness.

But is that the feeling of a major portion of the Democratic Party base right now?
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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sits between Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., right, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in 2013. Associated Press

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sits between Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., right, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in 2013.

You can see the progressive pushback in David Axelrod’s remarks when he took to Twitter to remind Mrs. Clinton that stupid stuff “means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.” The Obama White House is reportedly angered by Mrs. Clinton’s remarks. Left-wing websites have taken issue with her.

Mrs. Clinton was always going to have a challenger or challengers for the party’s nomination, and in fact needed one: She needs someone to beat for the nomination, she can’t just glide to it. At the same time it was in her interest to own a lot of political ground and give no big stark issue to the left. But she’s given them one now, and she is probably going to get a bigger challenge than she thinks.

Who might it be? Democrats are suddenly full of names—that itself is significant, they weren’t a few weeks ago—but the first person who always comes to mind could cause Mrs. Clinton a lot of trouble.

In a smart piece in The Washington Monthly, writer David Paul Kuhn takes a look at Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and reminds the political class not to write her off and not to assume that her stated position up to now—that she does not intend to run for president—will hold.

Mr. Kuhn notes that Ms. Warren has a powerful appeal among the party’s activist left. Her rhetoric is pure firebrand: “The game is rigged . . . and the rich and powerful have lobbyists and lawyers and plenty of friends in Congress.” She draws big, enthusiastic crowds. Mr. Kuhn quotes Democratic campaign veteran Joe Trippi, who suggests things may be more dynamic than they look: “The progressive wing is looking for a candidate.” With Hillary, as they say, Democrats are falling in line but not in love.

Yes, Mrs. Clinton is the favorite; yes, she has the money, the clout, the stature, fame and relationships. But she’s no populist, and populism is rising. Hillary is close to Wall Street; they’re her friends, her donors, they hire her for big ticket appearances. Ms. Warren has no use for Wall Street; they’re the ones who crashed the economy and got away with it. Mr. Kuhn notes that Ms. Warren’s signature line—the game is rigged—is no longer radical; it is the view of 6 in 10 Americans in some polls that our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy.

Ms. Warren would also take Hillary’s most powerful argument—that it’s time for a woman president and she is an accomplished woman—off the table.

I’d add two points.

One is that Ms. Warren has the hard-to-quantify power of the person who means it. She’s a real leftist, she didn’t get it from a poll. Second, though Ms. Warren and Hillary are almost the same age (65 and 66, respectively) they represent two wholly different political experiences. They are of different Democratic generations.

Hillary is a post-Reagan liberal. Her generation of liberalism was defined by a reckoning with and accommodation to popular modern conservatism.

Ms. Warren is a post-crash progressive. She came to politics during and after the financial crisis of 2008, and her political message was shaped by it. To some in the base Ms. Warren may seem fresher, more pertinent.

As for her repeated statements that she does not plan to run for the presidency in 2016, Mr. Kuhn notes that Barack Obama said things like that in the years before 2008. Then he ran.

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On the Republican side, of course, no one’s certain who’s running; some of those who think they might won’t, some who think they won’t might. But, as a smart party veteran said the other day, the primaries could in time turn into Rand Paul Versus the Guy Who Isn’t Rand Paul, the guy who stands for a greater perceived moderation.

But what if the nominee were Rand Paul? And he went up against Mrs. Clinton? The Kentucky senator would, presumably, be to her left on foreign policy. That would be historic enough. But what would the GOP’s establishmentarians, its money men and opinion shapers, do if the 2016 election came down to Mr. Paul versus a more moderate-seeming Hillary? They just might choose Mrs. Clinton. Bolt the party, or sit this one out.

We could see a rising populist candidate pretty much split the Democratic Party this year, and a rising libertarian one pretty much split the Republicans.

Yes, we are getting ahead of ourselves. No, this is not where you’d put your money, in part because it’s too dramatic, and when you expect history to get dramatic it often doesn’t, just as when you don’t it sometimes does.

But only months ago people were thinking 2016 might be ho-hum, a Bush versus a Clinton, with mournful commentary about the decadence of America’s acceptance of political dynasties. Maybe it will be sparkier than that. And maybe the sparkiness began this week, with that interview in The Atlantic.

Out of Many, Two? They may not mean to do it, but America's political leaders are deepening the nation’s divisions.

I had a conversation this week with an acquaintance of considerable accomplishment in the political and financial worlds. The talk turned to how some prospective presidential candidates seem to be running to lead two different countries. Rick Perry, say, and Elizabeth Warren experience, see, reflect and approach two very different realities. The conversation then took a surprising turn. My acquaintance said it’s possible the U.S. in our lifetimes will simply break up, tear apart. This might not be so terrible, he said, it would probably work out fine. He spoke not with an air of alarm but philosophically and almost cheerfully, which took me aback. I think a lot about the general subject of what deeply divides us, occasionally with a feeling of some alarm. I mentioned that America has been more or less politically divided since I was a young woman—I remembered Time magazine had a big piece on “The Two Americas” in 1969, when I was a teenager. Back then divisions played themselves out in such national arguments as Vietnam and Watergate.

I realized after our conversation that throughout my adulthood I had thought of America as more or less divided, with 20% or so in the center who politically hold things together. I remembered Lee Atwater told me, in 1988, that every presidential election takes place in the 20 yards in the center of the field.

At the same time I had always assumed that America was uniquely able to tolerate division. Shared patriotic feeling and respect for our political traditions left us, as a nation, with a lot of give. We could tug this way or that, correct and overcorrect, and do fine.

Tattered FlagMy concern the past few decades has been that we’ve lost or are losing some of that give, that divisions are sharper and deeper now in part because many of the issues that separate us are so piercing and personal. Vietnam and Watergate were outer issues. Many questions now speak of our essence as human beings. For instance: In the area of what are called the social issues, there are those (I am one) who passionately believe there must be some limits on what is legal, that horrors such as those that occurred in the office of Kermit Gosnell remind us that at the very least babies viable or arguably viable outside the womb must be protected. They can’t just be eliminated; if that is allowed we have entered a new stage of barbarism, and the special power of barbarism is that once unleashed it brings more barbarism. A worldview away—a universe away—are those who earnestly insist that any limit on a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy constitutes an illegitimate restriction on the essential rights of all women—that abortion is a personal concern, not a societal one.

One side is trying to protect a human life, the other a perceived right. Both sides in some way represent a different country with different assumptions and understandings of what is compassionate, decent, right.

And abortion of course, though a major, grinding issue, is only one. At the moment the border, the National Security Agency, privacy, overregulation and ObamaCare chafe away. My fear is that the issues mount, increase and are experienced as a daily harassment by more and more people who, public education being the spotty thing it’s been, are less held together than in the past by a unified patriotic theory of America, and consequently less keen on—and protective of—our political traditions. And things begin to fray very badly, even, down the road, to breaking points.

What do our political leaders do to make things better? Or worse? Here I turn to a surprising yet understandable dynamic that I think exists among them. It is that people grow up in a certain environment and tend to think that environment, and its assumptions, are continuing and will always continue. After the beginning of the great recession I saw the money gushing out of Washington to stabilize the system, to reward political cronies, to keep people afloat, to grease all wheels. There was a lot of waste, as is always true in government but is truer when the spigot is fully open. But not many in Washington seemed deeply concerned. The waste, the long-term deficits, the pumped-up Fed, the fear of impending bankruptcy—all gave rise to a feeling of alarm among many in the country. But not among many in Washington. Why?

I came to think that policy disagreement aside, it was that most people in politics grew up in and were surrounded by, in the first 30 or 50 years of their lives, an incredibly, historically affluent America, one whose financial strength was so mighty it could absorb any blow. This fact of their lives became their reigning assumption: You can do any amount of damage to America and it will be fine.

The country they grew up in is the country that lived in their heads. But when they brought their pasts into the future it kept them from seeing the present, in which America could actually be harmed, even go bankrupt.

I think this dynamic applies to assumptions among the political class regarding unending American unity. In the lives of every American now in politics the country has always managed to maneuver itself through rocky shoals, eased its way through changes, survived every challenge not only intact but stronger.

That has been the past so they think it is the future. I think this keeps them from seeing clearly the chafing, antagonized, even fearful present. No nation’s unity, cohesion and feeling of being at peace with itself can be taken for granted, even ours. They have to be protected day by day, in part by what politicians say. They shouldn’t be making it worse. They shouldn’t make divisions deeper.

In just the past week that means:

The president shouldn’t be using a fateful and divisive word like “impeachment” to raise money and rouse his base. He shouldn’t be at campaign-type rallies where he speaks only to the base, he should be speaking to the country. He shouldn’t be out there dropping his g’s, slouching around a podium, complaining about his ill treatment, describing his opponents with disdain: “Stop just hatin’ all the time.” The House minority leader shouldn’t be using the border crisis as a campaign prop, implying that Republicans would back Democratic proposals if only they were decent and kindly: “It’s not just about having a heart. It’s about having a soul.” And, revealed this week, important government administrators like Lois Lerner shouldn’t be able to operate within an agency culture so sick with partisanship that she felt free to refer to Republicans, using her government email account, as “crazies” and “—holes.”

All this reflects a political culture of brute and mindless disdain, the kind of culture that makes divisions worse.

They do this because they do not understand that they have an actual responsibility to hold this thing, America, together, every day. The more placid, more cohering nation they grew up in is in the past. Unity, cohesion and respect are no longer things that can be lauded now and then in prepared remarks. They actually have to be practiced.

The World the Great War Swept Away In 1914, Europe was prosperous and what followed was unimaginable.

In this centennial year of the Great War some things have not been said, or at least I haven’t heard them. Among them:

All the smart people knew the war would never come. The continent to which war came was on such an upward trajectory in terms of prosperity, inventiveness and political culture that it could have become—it arguably already was—a jewel of civilization. And the common man who should have wept at the war’s commencement instead cheered.

John Keegan went into these points in his classic history “The First World War,” published in 1998.

His first sentence is beautiful in its simplicity: “I grew up with men who had fought in the First World War and with women who had waited at home for news of them.” His father and uncles saw combat, his aunt was “one of the army of spinsters” the war produced.

His overall assessment is blunt: “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” Leaders who lacked “prudence” and “good will” failed one after another to stop an eminently stoppable train of events that produced a conflagration. That was tragic not only in terms of loss of life, and psychological, physical, emotional and even spiritual injury to survivors, but because the war destroyed a rising, bettering world: “the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent.” It of course also left “a legacy of political rancor and racial hatred so intense” that it guaranteed the world war that would follow 20 years later, which by Keegan’s calculation was five times as destructive of human life. Auschwitz and the other extermination camps “were as much relics of the First as the Second world war.” “They have their antecedents . . . in the fields where the trenches ran.”
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A promenade at Boulogne Wood in Paris in 1900. Getty Images

Boulogne Wood

A promenade at Boulogne Wood in Paris in 1900.

World War I didn’t do nearly as much material damage as World War II. No big European city was destroyed in World War I, and the Eastern and Western fronts ran mostly through forests and farmlands, which were quickly returned to use at the war’s end. “Yet it damaged civilization, the rational and liberal civilization of the European enlightenment, permanently for the worse and, through the damage done, world civilization also.”

Prewar European governments, imperial ones included, paid formal and often practical respect “to the principles of constitutionalism, the rule of law and representative government.” Confidence in those principles all but collapsed after the war: “Within fifteen years of the war’s end, totalitarianism, a new word for a system that rejected the liberalism and constitutionalism which had inspired European politics since the eclipse of monarchy in 1789, was almost everywhere on the rise.” To Russia came communism, to Germany Nazism, to Italy fascism and Spain Francoism. All these infections spread from a common wound: the dislocation and death of the great war.

The world swept away had been a rising and increasingly constructive one, where total war was unimaginable: “Europe in the summer of 1914 enjoyed a peaceful productivity so dependent on international exchange and co-operation that a belief in the impossibility of general war seemed the most conventional of wisdoms.”

Informed opinion had it that the disruption of international credit that would follow war “would either deter its outbreak or bring it speedily to an end.” And the business of Europe was business. Industrial output was expanding; there were new goods and manufacturing opportunities, such as the production and sale of internal-combustion machines. There were new profit centers, new sources of raw materials, including precious metals. Populations were increasing. Steamships and railways were revolutionizing transport. Capital was circulating. “Belgium, one of the smallest countries in Europe, had in 1914 the sixth largest economy in the world,” thanks to early industrialization, new banking and trading methods, and industrial innovators.

Europe was increasingly international—independent nations were dealing and trading with each other. “Common Christianity—and Europe was overwhelmingly Christian by profession in 1914 and strongly Christian in observance also”—found frequent expression in philosophical and political pursuits, including the well-being of labor. Movements to restrict working hours and forbid the employment of children were going forward. European governments were spurred by self-protectiveness: Liberalized labor laws were a way to respond to and attempt to contain the power and appeal of Marxism.

“Europe’s educated classes held much of its culture in common.” They knew Mozart and Beethoven and grand opera. ” Tolstoy was a European figure,” as were Victor Hugo, Balzac, Zola, Dickens, Shakespeare, Goethe and Dante. High-school students in England were taught French, and French students German. Study of the classics remained universal, scholars from all the countries of Europe knew Homer, Thucydides, Caesar and Livy. All shared the foundational classics of philosophy, Aristotle and Plato.

Europe as a cultural entity was coherent and becoming more so. By the beginning of the 20th century tourism “had become a middle-class pleasure” because of railways and the hotel industry that followed.

But Europe was also heavily armed. All countries had armed forces, some large and costly ones led by influential, respected figures. What do armies in peacetime do? Make plans to kill each other just in case. Keegan: “[A] new era in military planning had begun; that of the making of war plans in the abstract, plans conceived at leisure . . . and pulled out when eventuality becomes actuality.” What do soldiers who’ve made brilliant plans do? Itch to use them. Europe’s armies came to see their jobs as “how to assure military advantage in an international crisis, not how to resolve it.”

Soon enough they had their chance.

As you read of the war and its aftermath, you are always stopped by this fact: There is no recorded instance of masses of people gathering together to weep the day it was declared. They should have. The beautiful world they were day by day constructing was in jeopardy and ultimately would be consumed. Yet when people heard the news they threw their hats in the air, parading and waving flags in every capital. In Berlin “crowds thronged the streets shouting, cheering, singing patriotic songs.” In London the same. In St. Petersburg thousands waved banners and icons. In Paris, as the city’s regiments pushed off, “an immense clamour arose as the Marseillaise burst from a thousand throats.”

Western Europe hadn’t had a big and costly ground war since 1871. Maybe they forgot what war was. Surely some would have liked the drama and excitement—the interruption in normality, the break in the boring dailiness of life. Or the air of possibility war brings—of valor, for instance, and shown courage. Camaraderie, too, and a sense of romantic engagement with history. A sense of something to live for—victory.

Once a few years ago a reporter who had covered wars talked about this with a brilliant, accomplished, famously leftist editor in New York. At the end of a conversation on a recent conflict the reporter said, quizzically: “Why is there so much war? Why do we do that?”

“Because something’s wrong with us,” the editor replied.

I told him it was the best definition of original sin I’d ever heard.

Captaincy

There are reasons for traditions and arrangements. Sometimes they are good and sometimes not, but they are reasons, explanations grounded in some sort of experience. I had a conversation about this a few years ago with a young senior at Harvard who on graduation would go to work for a great consulting firm that studies the internal systems of business clients to see if they can be bettered. He asked if I had any advice, which I did not. Then I popped out, with an amount of feeling that surprised me because I didn’t know I had been thinking about it, that he should probably approach clients with the knowledge that systems and ways of operating almost always exist for a reason. Maybe the reason is antiquated or not applicable to current circumstances, but there are reasons for structures, and if you can tease them out they will help you better construct variations or new approaches. I can’t remember why but this opened up a nice conversation about how consultants walk into new jobs with a bias toward change—the recommendation of change proves their worth and justifies their fees—but one should be aware of that bias and replace it with a bias for improvement, which is different.

Connected to that, I’ve spent a lot of the past 10 years reading histories of war—how and why they came about, what happened within them, how it all ended, and what the ending produced. This led, somewhat to my surprise, to becoming engrossed in histories of battles, and discovering a natural and previously unplumbed interest in topography, artillery, logistics, generalship, the readiness of armies, transport, field communications, provisioning, etc.

One thing you find yourself interested in as you read histories of the British armed forces is why the army, the establishment and the people of the country put up with the purchase system, the tradition whereby England’s wealthy aristocrats and noblemen bought commissions in the army and paid lump-sum amounts for increases in rank.

The historian Cecil Woodham-Smith, a writer of magnificent ease, style and wit, addresses this in “The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade,” published in 1953.

“The purchase system . . . which enabled a rich man to buy the command of a regiment over the heads of more efficient officers, appears at first sight as so childishly unjust, so evidently certain to lead to disaster, that it is almost impossible to believe that sensible people ever tolerated much less supported it,” she observed. And yet, she wrote, the system expressed an important British principle; famous victories were won with it in place; and even the Duke of Wellington, that master of administration, backed it.

Why? For what were at the time good reasons.

“No sentiment is more firmly rooted in the English national character,” writes Woodham-Smith, “than a hatred of militarism and military dictatorship.” Edmund Burke reflected this when he declared, in Parliament: “An armed disciplined force is in its essence dangerous to liberty.” The attitude was pervasive and sprang from the 17th century experience of Cromwell’s Major-Generals. Woodham-Smith: “The people of England were then subjected to a military dictatorship, they were ruled by Army officers who were professional soldiers, and, who, though admittedly the finest soldiers in the world, usually had no stake in the country, and often were military adventurers. Their government was harsh and arbitrary, and the nation came to detest the very name of the Army.”

Restoration of the crown followed. So did a national determination never again to allow the army to be led by men who would lead a military revolution and impose military dictatorship.

And so the idea of the purchase system, introduced in 1683 when the standing army was formed. Men could become officers if they came up with enough money to buy a commission or make a significant down-payment. This, writes Woodham-Smith, meant officers would, by definition, be “men of property with a stake in the country, not military adventurers.” Additionally, the price of a commission functioned as a spur to good behavior: A man dismissed for bad actions lost what he had paid. Shallowly perhaps, but for the English not insignificantly, wealthy officers put on a good show: they dressed their regiments in colorful, well-tailored uniforms and saw they had the best horses.

From 1683, both Crown and Parliament agreed that officers of the British army would be drawn from “the class that had everything to lose and nothing to gain from a military revolution.”

This approach was very different from that of the other great powers of Europe, which used as officers professional soldiers who were dependent on their salaries, who used high military rank to enhance their social standing and often used it to build fortunes. The officers of the English system didn’t have to do that: They were already rich and titled.

The purchase system was adopted to help prevent revolutions and the rise of Napoleons; the system, existing within an army that was well-managed, well-led, properly administered and populated by troops with a fighting spirit, would in fact defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.

It worked, haphazardly and not without problems—some officers were fools or second raters, and some men of talent, vision and even military genius never rose because they lacked the money to buy the position that would give a stage to their gifts—for almost 200 years, being more or less abolished by 1870.

Why? Because even though the government by nature held a bias for the wealthy and aristocratic, the system in the end was recognized to be not only abusive of humble talent, but increasingly abused and rigged by the wealthy, some of whom bought captaincies, never bothered to show up, and started swanning around London calling themselves Captain. There were bribery scandals. The system was finally judged to be destructive to the operations, efficiency and spirit of the entire army.

So it was abolished.

But the system existed for a reason, as all structures, systems and ways of operating do.

Bonus information: Cecil Woodham-Smith was a woman. Cecil was really her first name. From the author page of “The Reason Why”: She was from an Irish family, the Fitzgeralds, with deep military ties: Her father served in the British Indian Army, her mother’s family included a general who fought under Wellington and was killed at Waterloo. She wrote a greatly admired biography of Florence Nightingale, bearing the name of its subject, published in 1950, and “The Great Hunger,” a history of the Irish famine of the 1840s, published in 1962. She was named a Commander of the British Empire in 1960. Did Woodham-Smith know most readers thought her a man? Probably. Certainly. But being a woman in her field and area of expertise wouldn’t have been seen by readers, critics or academics as a plus, so she was luckily named. Anyway, this too speaks of a system and tradition that had poor reasons.

The War That Broke a Century A king, a kaiser, a czar—all were undone as they realized what they had unleashed with World War I.

Next week marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. It was the great disaster of the 20th century, the one that summoned or forced the disasters that would follow, from Lenin and Hitler to World War II and the Cold War. It is still, a century later, almost impossible to believe that one event, even a war, could cause such destruction, such an ending of worlds.

History still isn’t sure and can never be certain of the exact number of casualties. Christopher Clark, in “The Sleepwalkers” (2013), puts it at 20 million military and civilian deaths and 21 million wounded. The war unleashed Bolshevism, which brought communism, which in time would kill tens of millions more throughout the world. (In 1997, “The Black Book of Communism,” written by European academics, put the total number at a staggering 94 million.)

Thrones were toppled, empires undone. Western Europe lost a generation of its most educated and patriotic, its future leaders from all classes—aristocrats and tradesmen, teachers, carpenters and poets. No nation can lose a generation of such men without effect. Their loss left Europe, among other things, dumber.

Reading World War I histories, I have been startled to realize the extent to which the leaders or putative leaders of the belligerent nations personally suffered. A number of them fell apart, staggering under the pressure, as if at some point in the day-to-day they realized the true size and implications of the endeavor in which they were immersed. They seemed to come to understand, after the early hurrahs, that they were involved in the central catastrophe of the 20th century, and it was too big, too consequential, too history-making to be borne. Some would spend the years after the war insisting, sometimes at odd moments, that it wasn’t their fault.
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King George V visiting a soldier's grave

Illustration of King George V visiting a soldier’s grave on the Western Front during World War 1.

As Miranda Carter shows in “George, Nicholas and Wilhelm” (2010), the king of England, the czar of Russia and the kaiser of Germany were all in different ways wrecked by the war.

Kaiser Wilhelm, whose bombast, peculiarities of personality and lack of wisdom did so much to bring the conflict, folded almost from the start. Two years in, he was described by those around him as a “broken man”—depressed, lethargic, ill. An aide wrote of him as “violent and unpredictable.”

Barbara Tuchman, in the classic “The Guns of August” (1962), notes how in the early days of the war Wilhelm’s margin notes on telegrams became “more agitated.” (“Rot!” “He lies!” “False dog!”) In time, top brass shunted him aside and viewed him as irrelevant. The kaiser rarely referred to the sufferings of his people. Ms. Carter writes: “Wilhelm had always had difficulty in empathizing with others’ difficulties.” When his country collapsed, he fled to Holland, where in conversation he referred to his countrymen as “pigs” and insisted that the war was the fault of others. He died at age 81 in 1941, two years into World War II.

King George V did have empathy, and it almost killed him. Touring the Western Front, he suffered at the sights—once-rich fields now charred craters, villages blasted away, piles of dead bodies. He aged overnight, his beard turning almost white. Ms. Carter writes that he now surveyed the world with a “dogged, melancholic, unsmiling stare.” A year into the war, a horse he was riding on a visit to the front got frightened, reared, and fell on him. The king never fully recovered from the injuries. Years later, he was haunted by what he called “that horrible and unnecessary war.” In 1935, war clouds gathering once again, he met up with his wartime prime minister. The king, wrote Lloyd George, “broke out vehemently, ‘And I will not have another war, I will not.’ ” He also said that the Great War had not been his fault. He died the following year.

Czar Nicholas II of Russia, of course, would lose everything—his throne and his life, as his family would lose theirs. But from the early days of the war he too was buckling. His former chief minister, Vladimir Kokovtsov, called Nicholas’s faded eyes “lifeless.” In the middle of conversations, the czar lost the thread, and a simple question would reduce him to “a perfectly incomprehensible state of helplessness.”

Two years in, Kokovtsov thought Nicholas on the verge of nervous breakdown. So did the French ambassador, who wrote in the summer of 1916: “Despondency, apathy and resignation can be seen in his actions, appearance, attitudes and all the manifestations of the inner man.” The czar wore a constant, vacant smile, but glanced about nervously. Friendly warnings that the war was not being won and revolution could follow were ignored. For him, in Ms. Carter’s words, “Contradiction now constituted betrayal.” At the end, those close to Nicholas wondered if he failed to move to save his throne because he preferred a crisis that might force his abdication—and the lifting of burdens he now crushingly understood he could not sustain.

Then there is Woodrow Wilson at his second Versailles peace conference, in the spring of 1919. Negotiations were draining, occasionally volatile. The victors postured, schemed and turned on each other for gain. They had literally argued about whether windows should be opened, and about what language should be the official one of the talks. (They settled on three.) President Wilson developed insomnia and a twitch on the left side of his face. He was constantly tired, occasionally paranoid. After a trying meeting with France’s finance minister, Louis Klotz, Wilson joked with a friend of his weariness: “I have Klotz on the brain.”

He may have. Weeks earlier, weak and feverish, he had physically collapsed. It was a flu, a cold, possibly encephalitis. He rallied and returned to work but sometimes appeared impatient, euphoric or energized to the point of manic.

On the afternoon of May 1 at the peace conference, Wilson suddenly announced in his office, to his wife and his doctor, Adm. Cary Grayson, “I don’t like the way the colors of this furniture fight each other.” As biographer A. Scott Berg notes in “Wilson,” published last year, the president continued, saying: “The greens and the reds are all mixed up here and there is no harmony. Here is a big purpose, high-backed covered chair, which is like the Purple Cow, strayed off to itself, and it is placed where the light shines on it too brightly. If you will give me a lift, we will move this next to the wall where the light from the window will give it a subdued effect. And here are two chairs, one green and the other red. This will never do. Let’s put the greens all together and the reds together.”

Mr. Berg : “Wilson’s bizarre comments did not end there. He described the Council of Four meetings, how each delegation walked like schoolchildren each day to its respective corners. Now, with the furniture regrouped, he said each country would sit according to color”—the reds in the American corner, the greens in the British.

Grayson didn’t know what to think. Perhaps it was nervous exhaustion, perhaps a sign of something more serious. After returning to the U.S., Wilson launched a grueling campaign for America to join the League of Nations. That fall, in the White House, he would suffer the stroke or strokes that would leave him disabled the rest of his life.

So what are we saying? Nothing beyond what I suppose has long been a theme, which may be a nice word for preoccupation, in this space: History is human.

And sometimes it turns bigger than humans can bear.

Politics in the Modest Age Is a humble postpresidency imaginable today?

“I’m just plain Mr. Truman now, a private citizen.” So said an overwhelmed Harry S. Truman to a boisterous, affectionate crowd that surprised him as he ventured to a private home in Washington for a farewell lunch soon after his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, was sworn in as president of the United States. It was Jan. 20, 1953.

Later, a regular Baltimore & Ohio train with a special car attached would take Truman and his wife, Bess, from Union Station westward, to their home in Independence, Mo. Thousands saw them off at the station. “So long, Harry!” they cried, as if they knew him. “At 6:30, with the crowd singing ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ the train began pulling slowly out of the station, until it was beyond the lighted platform. It had been a long road from Independence to the White House, and now Truman was going home.” (This is from David McCullough’s magisterial 1992 biography, “Truman.”)

And he really did go home. He had, for almost eight years since the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, been the most powerful man on earth, the wager and completer of wars and saver of Europe. In his diary Truman wrote of Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who led in his country’s hour of need and then, work done, returned to his plow. It is what George Washington did. Heck, it’s what Calvin Coolidge, like Truman from modest means, did.

Truman would go back to being “just anybody again.” But there was something people didn’t know. He was—amazingly, this wasn’t a lie—pretty much dead broke.

Mr. McCullough: “He had traveled home from Washington unprotected by Secret Service agents and there were to be none watching over him. He had come home without salary or pension. He had no income or support of any kind from the federal government other than his Army pension of $112.56 a month.” He had saved a little from his salary but put it in government bonds. In his final weeks as president he took out a loan from a Washington bank to tide him over.

He didn’t know how he would make a living. His great concern was not to do anything that might exploit or “commercialize” the office he’d just left. He was offered small fortunes to associate himself with real estate companies and other corporations but he turned them down. Mr. McCullough: “His name was not for sale. He would take no fees for commercial endorsements or for lobbying or writing letters or making phone calls. He would accept no ‘consulting fees.’” Offered a new Toyota 7203.TO -0.71% as a demonstration of harmonious relations between the U.S. and Japan, he refused: It might look like a product endorsement. Anyway, he believed in American cars.

His transition was hard. He had become used to the pressures of the office and felt lost without them. He missed the people he worked with, especially Dean Acheson, his secretary of state and closest friend. And he missed “those bright lights.”

But he worked it out. He rented office space in Kansas City, where on the day he arrived thousands of letters were already waiting for him. (The letters never abated, which I know because a dozen years later, as a teenager, I would write one, expressing my admiration and requesting his autograph. “Harry Truman, State of Missouri,” I wrote on the envelope. That was all that was needed. He promptly and sweetly wrote back.)

The former president had to relearn things—how and whom to tip in restaurants, how to call a cab—that presidents don’t have to do. For this unassuming man there were humbling moments. One day he walked by a road project and asked the man in charge if he didn’t need a good straw boss. The man looked at him, looked at the workers, looked back at Truman and smiled: “You are out of a job, aren’t you?”
Enlarge Image

A presidential portrait of Harry Truman painted by Greta Kempton in 1948. Getty Images

Harry Truman

Harry Truman, painted by Greta Kempton in 1948.

Truman took part in the planning of his presidential library, trekking to possible sites, drawing what he thought it should look like—his grandfather’s house. The federal government contributed nothing, Truman did the fundraising himself.

He agreed to write his memoirs and signed a big contract—$600,000. But it was to be paid over five years, and the first payment came on delivery of a manuscript, so he had to hustle. It was a struggle. “I’m not a writer,” he wailed, not as a complaint but an assertion of his predicament. He got help and didn’t hide it. On notes toward a first draft he scrawled, “Good God, what crap!”

He and Bess took a break to visit friends back in Washington; Truman drove all the way. That was challenging because cops stopped him to warn about speeding but really to get autographs, and patrons of diners surrounded him to watch him eat.

When the book came out it sold fine and earned respectful reviews. But friends thought Harry’s pungent, blunt manner of expression had been squashed down and evened out by collaborators, or perhaps by self-consciousness. A bigger disappointment was money. With the cost of staff, researchers and office rent, his net profit, he figured, was only $37,000 over five years. He was shocked he had to pay 67% federal and state income taxes. Truman had supported high tax rates for broad government services pretty much all his political life. There was a sense in his letters this was the first time he personally felt the cost of the policies he’d professed. He called the taxes “crushing.” He pushed for a bill in Washington for office money for former presidents, and—rightly, fairly—got it.

Truman wasn’t financially secure until five years after he left the White House, when he sold family farmland whose fields he had worked as a boy. It made him sad: He liked thinking of himself as a farmer. But if he hadn’t sold, he said, “I would practically be on relief.”

He died the day after Christmas 1972, age 88, and his death was not only marked but mourned. A friend had described to the New York Times NYT +1.92% magazine how he had achieved happiness: “Harry feels that he’s square with the world, that he gave it his best, and got its best in return.”

God bless him, he did.

*   *   *

Why are we talking about Harry Truman? You know.

We live in a time when politicians relentlessly enrich themselves. We are awed and horrified by the wealth they accumulate, by their use of connections, of money lines built on past and future power. It’s an operation to them. They are worth hundreds of millions. They have houses so fancy the houses have names. They make speeches to banks and universities for a quarter-million dollars and call their fees contributions to their foundations. They are their foundations.

They grab and grub. They never leave. They never go home. They don’t have a “home”: They were born in a place, found a launching pad, and shot themselves into glamour and wealth. They are operators—entitled, assuming. They “stand for the people.” They stand for themselves.

So I just wanted to note how it used to be, when leaders thought they had to be respectable. When they were respectable.

“Harry Truman, not a money-grubbing slob.” Who, years ago, imagined that would come to be remarkable?

The Crisis on the Border No one who wants to help has authority, and no one with authority is helping.

What is happening at the southern border is a true and actual crisis. News accounts justly use words like chaos, collapse and breakdown. They feature images of children—toddlers, 4- and 5-year-olds—being shuffled to warehouse holding centers, sleeping crowded at night on what look like pallets, covered only in Mylar blankets. “I never thought we’d have refugee camps in America,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, “but that’s what it’s appearing.”

All this gives normal people a feeling of besiegement and foreboding. Is a nation without borders a nation? Washington’s leaders seem to recognize what’s happening as a political problem, not a real problem. That is, they betray no honest alarm. They just sort of stand in clusters and say things.

There seem only two groups that view the situation with appropriate alarm.

One is the children themselves, dragged through deserts to be deposited here. To them, everything is a swirl of lights, color and clamor, and shouting and clanking. A reporter touring a detainment center in Texas noted a blank, lost look among some of the younger children. Every mother knows what that suggests. Children who cry and wail anticipate comfort: That’s why they’re crying, to alert those who care for them that something is wrong. But little children who are blank, withdrawn, who don’t show or at some point know what they’re feeling—those children are in trouble.

The other group feeling a proper alarm is normal Americans, who are seeing all this on TV and who judge they are witnessing a level of lawlessness that has terrible implications for the country.

This is how I think normal people are experiencing what is happening:

A boy in a holding cell

A boy in a holding cell at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Nogales, Ariz., June 18.

It’s like you live in a house that’s falling apart. The roof needs to be patched and there are squirrels in the attic, a hornet’s nest in the eaves. The basement’s wet. The walkway to the front door is cracked with grass growing through it. The old boiler is making funny sounds. On top of that it’s always on your mind that you could lose your job tomorrow and must live within strict confines so you can meet the mortgage and pay the electric bill. You can’t keep the place up and you’re equal parts anxious, ashamed and angry. And then one morning you look outside and see . . . all these people standing on your property, looking at you, making some mute demand.

Little children looking lost—no one’s taking care of them. Older ones settling in the garage, or working a window to the cellar. You call the cops. At first they don’t come. Then they come and shout through a bull horn and take some of the kids and put them in a shelter a few blocks away. But more kids keep coming! You call your alderman and he says there’s nothing he can do. Then he says wait, we’re going to pass a bill and get more money to handle the crisis. You ask, “Does that mean the kids will go home?” He says no, but it may make things feel more orderly. You call the local TV station and they come do a report on your stoop and then they’re gone, because really, what can they do, and after a few days it’s getting to be an old story.

No one’s in charge! No one is taking responsibility. No one who wants to help has authority, and no one with authority is helping.

America is the house that is both falling apart and under new stress. Those living within it, those most upset by what they’re seeing, know America has big problems—unemployment, low workforce participation, a rickety physical infrastructure, an unsound culture, poor public education. And of course discord of all sorts—a lot of mad squirrels running around the attic. They know America can’t pay its bills. They fear we’re living on the fumes of greatness. They want us to be strong again. Watching our border collapse doesn’t look like a harbinger of progress.

Here it must be said that those who live comfortable lives can afford to roll with the historical punches. But people who are not affluent live closer to the ground, and closer to the country’s deterioration. The rougher America becomes, the more they feel the abrasion. They’re not protected.

And they know no one wants to be in charge, wants to seize this thing and take responsibility. The mind-boggling fact is that everyone in charge more or less suggests they’re powerless to do anything. And the children keep coming.

*   *   *

The president of course has rushed to the scene—to go, as always, to fundraisers. This is at the moment a scandal, but why? Clever people say it’s an unforced error. He has to show he cares! He ought to journey to an overwhelmed border area, stand there and point to the middle distance as a local official in a hopefully picturesque hat briefs him. It’s almost touching how much the press wants to see this. But why? Why do they want to see the president enact a degree of alarm he clearly does not feel?

For a quarter-century I have been puzzled by the press’s emphasis on “optics,” their stupid word—actually it is a consultants’ word they’ve lamely adopted—for how things look as opposed to how they are. Their criticism comes down to a complaint they’re not being manipulated well enough. It is a strange complaint.

Give the president points for honesty. He doesn’t want to enact an “I care and am aware” photo-op. He will pay a political price, but it is clearly a price he is willing to pay. He never has to face a voter again.

The latest border surge has been going on for at least two years. Children and others are coming because they believe that under the president’s leadership, if they get here they’ll get a pass to stay. (They’re probably right.) This was predictable. Two years ago Texas Gov. Rick Perry wrote the president that the number of unaccompanied children was spiking sharply. He warned that unless the government moves, other minors would attempt the journey and find themselves in “extremely dangerous situations.” The generally agreed-upon number of those who’ve come so far this year is 50,000. Now government estimates are rising to at least 90,000 by year’s end.

*   *   *

Meanwhile some in the conservative press call the president incapable, unable to handle the situation. But he is not so stupid he doesn’t know this is a crisis. He knows his poll numbers are going to go even lower next month because of it. He scrambled Wednesday to hold a news conference to control a little of the damage, but said nothing new.

There is every sign he let the crisis on the border build to put heat on Republicans and make them pass his idea of good immigration reform. It would be “comprehensive,” meaning huge, impenetrable and probably full of mischief. His base wants it. It would no doubt benefit the Democratic Party in the long term.

The little children in great danger, holding hands, staring blankly ahead, are pawns in a larger game. That game is run by adults. How cold do you have to be to use children in this way?

Hillary Clinton, for Richer or Poorer Her book tour exposes forgotten vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

News is surprise. The news out of Hillary Clinton’s book tour is that it hasn’t gone well. It was supposed to establish her iconic position in American political life while solidifying her inevitability. Instead it exposed vulnerabilities. The media was neither at her feet nor at her throat but largely distanced, which was interesting. Her claim that the Clintons were “dead broke” when they left the White House inspired widespread derision. Her exchanges on Benghazi didn’t bury the issue but kept it alive.

The scripted answers were tiring. The old trick of answering the question you wish you’d been asked instead of the one you were is weary to the point of antique. So is her tendency to filibuster. On Thursday she almost committed candor in an interview with PBS’s Gwen Ifill. Ms. Ifill was teasing her out on the presidency. Hillary, with a look of good humor, said that frankly, “you have to be a little bit crazy to run for president . . . so totally immersed, and so convinced that you can bring something to that office”—and then she caught herself, mid-honesty, and lapsed into a long, fatuous aria about how she sees the people and they tell her of their struggles.

It was sad. She was almost interesting! Her tendency to check herself comes across more as a tic she can’t control than an attempt to maintain discretion.

The book was almost uniformly panned. Sales were disappointing, falling a reported 44% in the second week, which means word-of-mouth wasn’t good. To top it off, The Wall Street Journal and NBC released a poll taken at the height of the tour that said while 55% of Americans find her knowledgeable and experienced enough to be president, less than half consider her honest and straightforward.

Hillary Clinton

The former secretary of state at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Los Angeles to sign copies of her book ‘Hard Choices’

But the tour yielded three positives. Mrs. Clinton put away the issue, if it was an issue, of age. She has sufficient energy, brightness and hustle to banter and party with interviewers and audiences in a lengthy major national tour. There is nothing wrong with her brain. In fact, she changed the way you see her when you think about her. Twenty-two years ago, when she first arrived on the national scene, she was the brittle harridan in the headband, the high-ticket attorney who wasn’t gonna be bakin’ no cookies. That image has changed over the years, but during the tour the change became definitive. Now she’s Mom—mature, settled, with a throaty laugh and a thickening middle. Or grandma. After six years of presidential leadership from a lithe, supple, snotty older brother, Mom will seem an improvement.

Mrs. Clinton also re-established the fact of her experience, eight years a U.S. senator and four as secretary of state. She wanted to remind us, and did, that her professional résumé is superior to that of the incumbent and his predecessor. And she was interesting and believable when she said women in politics have it tougher than men, that they come under stranger scrutiny, are subjected to greater demands and more outrageous insults. This is true, and there isn’t a Republican congresswoman who wouldn’t give you an earful on it.

As to the vulnerabilities made more obvious by the tour, the talk of Mrs. Clinton’s wealth, which followed her protestations of near-destitution when she left the White House, reminded people of the Bonnie-and-Clyde factor. The Clintons now hold a place of high respect and stature. But before they were Eleanor and Franklin they were viewed by their critics, and not only their critics, as Bonnie and Clyde. Most of their scandals were about money—from luckily timed cattle-future investments to Whitewater to campaign-financing lapses to last-minute pardons for donors to “renting out” the Lincoln bedroom, and more.

Mrs. Clinton seems to have a peculiar and unattractive relationship with money. She wants it and she doesn’t want you to know. She also appears to think she’s entitled to it, as a public servant who operated at high levels. But public servants now are less like servants than bosses.

When an interviewer compared her to Mitt Romney in terms of wealth, she got a stony look. That is a “false equivalency,” she said. You could see she feels she should not be compared to a wealthy Republican because she’s liberal and therefore stands for the little guy. So she can be rich and should not be criticized, while rich people who have the wrong policies—that would be Republicans—are “the rich” and can be scorned and shamed. This is seen by some as hypocrisy but is more like smugness.

It is Mrs. Clinton’s habit to fake identification with people who’ve had real struggles by claiming she’s had them too. All humans have struggles, but hers were not material. She came from a solidly suburban upper-middle-class home, glided into elite schools, became a lawyer, married a politician who quickly rose, enjoyed all the many perks of a governor’s mansion and then the White House, and then all the perks of a senator, secretary of state and former first lady. She’s been driven in limousines and official cars almost all her adult life. For more than a quarter-century she has seen America through tinted windows.

Newly out of the Ivy League, she asked for political power instead of financial power. Many of her generation of liberal activists, with similar bona fides, chose the latter. She married and became a politician and accrued great power and fame.

But she still wanted the money. Through speeches, appearances, books and investments, she got it. Bill seems happy with it. She sees a disjunction between her acquisitive streak and her party’s demonization of acquisitive streaks, and so she claims she was broke, at the mercy of forces, an orphan in the storm, instead of an operator of considerable hunger and skill.

All this has made her look silly and phony. One wonders what she thinks of the base of her party that she can’t knock it off.

As for the book, it is actually the first I have encountered that was written so a politician could say, “I wrote about this at length in my book.” It exists to offer a template for various narratives and allow her to suggest she’s already well covered the issue at hand, which the interviewer would know if he were better informed.

It is written in the style of the current Ladies’ Home Journal in that it patronizes even as it panders. It is an extended attempt to speak “their language,” the language of a huge imagined audience of women. There are silver linings of defeat. She brims with ideas, advocates, gets to yes, chooses her own team. There are clear-eyed assessments and daunting challenges. The State Department neighborhood is known as “Foggy Bottom.” She proudly quotes a speech she gave in 2008. “You will always find me on the front lines of democracy—fighting for the future.”

Ladies and gentleman, that is the authentic sound of 2016. Shoot me now.

Why do Democratic politicians talk like this about themselves, putting themselves and their drama at the ego-filled center, instead of policy ideas, larger meanings, the actual state of the country? In this she is just like Barack Obama.

What America Thinks About Iraq Two administrations’ deadly incompetence has shaken their faith in the political class.

‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

We are back to 2003 (the invasion), 2007 (the surge) and 2011 (the withdrawal).

How does the American public view what is going on in Iraq now—the burgeoning war, the fall of cities we fought for and held, the possible fall of Baghdad and collapse of the country? What attitude and approach will the public support in response?

Here is my sense of it:

They believe going in was a disaster.

They believe getting out is producing a disaster.

They believe the leadership in Washington failed in both cases, in the going in and the getting out.

They think George W. Bush made the wrong call and followed with the wrong execution. As for those around him, they had no realistic plan for what would happen after they toppled Saddam Hussein and seem to have thought George Washington would spring from the rubble and take it from there. There was no sophisticated and realistic game plan. American officials did not seem to know there was a difference between a Sunni and a Shia. They were frequently taken aback by events that were predictable. They assumed good luck, a terrible, ignorant thing to assume in a war.

Presidential SealThe American people believe Barack Obama viewed Iraq as a personal political problem. He won the presidency being antiwar, so he had to anti-the-war before his re-election. He did it without appropriate care and commitment, which probably guaranteed we’d wind up where we are. He is out of his depth. Amazingly, he radiates a sense that he isn’t all that invested, that he doesn’t drag himself to the golf course to get a break and maintain balance, but plays golf because at the end of the day Iraq, like other problems, challenges and scandals, isn’t making him bleed inside.

And the people don’t like any of this. Americans hate incompetence, but most of all and in a separate class they hate bloody incompetence. They’ve seen it now from two administrations.

The bright spot: the earnest professionalism of our troops, still unsurpassed.

But the loss of life, the financial cost, the loss of prestige, the sense that somehow after 9/11 we squandered the sympathy and support of the world, the danger to the world when America gets beat or looks beat, the inspiration that is to evil-mined men—these things the American people would hate.

They do not believe the architects of Iraq told them the full truth in the past or are candid and forthcoming even now, more than 11 years after the invasion. The architects do not speak of what they got wrong and exactly how, when and why. Their blame-laying sounds less like strength than spin. They are like what Talleyrand is said to have observed of the Bourbons, that they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Because of this they are not fully credible when they critique the current president and not fully believable when they offer new strategies.

When you have been catastrophically wrong, you have to bring a certain humility to the table.

The American people do not want to go back into Iraq. They will be skeptical of all plans, strategies and decisions because they lack faith in their leaders. If they hear “We are sending 300 military advisers,” they will think: It won’t end there.

They don’t think the U.S. can solve Iraq. They think only Iraq can do that.

They think Iraq’s leader, Nouri al-Maliki, is a loser who lives in Loserville. Get rid of him? Tell him to resign? Sure, but who will replace him, the loser next door? Should he reform his government, making it more respectful, tolerant and accountable? Sure. But do the ISIS forces look like men who’ll respond, “Wow, he’s being a better leader, let’s lay down our arms!”? No, actually, they don’t.

Americans are worried about the country’s standing in the world. They want to be the most powerful and respected nation in the world, because we are Americans and that’s how we roll.

They have the feeling that what America has to do now, the missing part of the terrible puzzle, is to rebuild here, refind our strength, be rich again, pump out jobs, unleash our energy—let it bound out of the ground and help turn our economy around. We have to reset our relationship with ourselves. We have to become strong again, that is the key not only to our confidence but to the world’s respect.

Here’s a terrible thing, though: They don’t really have any faith that this remedial work will get done, that the economy will be reignited, that corrupt governance and crony capitalism will be stopped. They don’t have any particular faith that it will happen with the generation of losers we have now in Washington.

They do not think the bad guys will wait and pause while America says, “Excuse me, I need time to get my act together. Could you present your existential challenge later?”

They think the fighting in Iraq will likely continue and spread. They think a lot of violent extremists will kill a lot of violent extremists, and many good and innocent people, too. It always happens. It’s one of the reasons war is terrible.

They know something is wrong with their thinking, that it’s not fully satisfying but instead marked by caveats and questions.

If the oil we need is truly endangered, and this tips us into a new recession . . .

If daily we see shootings and beheadings of people who bravely and kindly stood with us during the war . . .

All that will have a grinding, embittering effect on the public mood. And if some mad group of jihadists, when their bloody work in Iraq is finished, decide to bring their efforts once again to an American city—well then, obviously, all bets will be off.

But the old American emotionalism, the assumption that the people of Iraq want what we want, freedom and democracy, is over. Ten years ago if you announced you had reservations about what the people of Iraq really want, and maybe it isn’t freedom and democracy first, such reservations were called ethnocentric, belittling, bigoted. That’s over, too. We are hard-eyed now.

In the long term, the U.S. experience in Iraq will probably contribute to the resentment, the sheer ungodly distance and lack of trust and faith between the people who are governed in America and those who govern them, between the continent and the city called Washington. Also between the people and the two great political parties, both of which blundered.

Pundits and pollsters have been talking about a quickening of the populist spirit, and the possibility of a populist rise, for at least a quarter-century. But they’re doing it more often now.

There is a growing disconnect between the American people and their government, a freshened resentment. We are not only talking about Iraq when we talk about Iraq, we are also talking about ourselves. We are not only talking about the past, we are talking about the future.

The architects of the Iraq invasion always said the decision to invade was crucial, consequential, a real world-changer. They had no idea.

A Tale of Two Scandals

Forty-one years ago, during a small and largely ignored government scandal, a great mystery occurred. A group of determined congressional investigators, who had learned the president of the United States was running a voice-activated taping system in the Oval Office, pressed to get their hands on the tapes. The courts ruled in their favor. The White House had to hand over a number of tapes. But it turned out one of them, which was understood by the timeline to potentially be the key one, the one that might reveal exactly how the scandal began, turned out to have an 18½-minute gap.

It came to pass that the longtime personal secretary of the president, Rose Mary Woods, who had been transcribing the tapes in preparation for turning them over, said she had made “a terrible mistake.” She had been listening to the tape when the phone rang; she turned, picked it up, meant to hit the stop button on the tape recorder but hit the record button instead, spoke on the phone for five minutes and when the conversation was over found that five minutes of the tape had been recorded over. Later, and doubly mysterious, it turned out that a total of 18½ minutes of the tape had been erased. No one knows to this day how that happened. The president’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, once mused it might have been the work of some “sinister force.”

A few members of Congress went mad with fury, but nobody else really noticed or cared. It was a time of such drama—Vietnam, student demonstrations, a cascade of other scandals to distract the attention of the press. So everyone ignored what happened with the tape, and the Watergate scandal, as it was called, did not end in the impeachment of a president. It just went away, in time became “old news.” Well, the president had said there was “not even a smidgen” of corruption in the story, so there you are.

*   *   *

Ha, wait, that’s not what happened.

The 18½ minutes of destroyed evidence had a galvanizing effect on an already galvanized national scandal. Rose Mary Woods was hauled before a grand jury, questioned, derided, called a pawn in a criminal coverup. She endured for the rest of her life what the New York Times in its obituary called a “hideous, disfiguring fame.”

And Richard Nixon’s government of course came crashing down, as did he.

Why is this pertinent?

Because the Obama administration is experiencing what appears to be its own Eighteen-and-a-Half Minute moment. In a truly stunning development in the Internal Revenue Service scandal, the agency last week informed Congress that more than two years’ of Lois Lerner’s email communications with those outside that agency—from 2009 to 2011, meaning the key years at the heart of the targeting-of-conservatives scandal—have gone missing. Quite strangely. The IRS says it cannot locate them. The reason is that Lerner’s computer crashed.

What are the implications of this claim? It means no one can see any emails Lerner sent to or received from other agencies and individuals, including the White House and members of Congress.

And what is amazing—not surprising, but amazing—is that if my experience of normal human conversation the past few days is any guide, very few people are talking about it and almost no one cares.

The IRS scandal as a news story carries a stigma, and the stigma is in part due to the fact that when it broke, when Lois Lerner last year made her admission, with a planted question at an American Bar Association gathering, that the IRS had made some mistakes with conservative groups, and disingenuously suggested the blame lay with incompetents in a field office far from the Beltway, conservatives and partisans jumped. The mainstream press was inclined to believe Lerner, or believe at least that a series of mistakes had produced a small if embarrassing so-called scandal. Some conservatives, activists and partisans, not all of them sincere and not all of them serious, viewed the story primarily as another cudgel to use against the president and his party. Some no doubt viewed it as a fundraising opportunity.

The press viewed it not as a story but as a partisan political drama. And in partisan political dramas they are very rarely on the Republican side.

I haven’t ever met a reporter or producer who wasn’t a conservative who didn’t believe the IRS scandal was the result of the bureaucratic confusion and incompetence of some office workers in Cincinnati who made a mistake.

But the IRS scandal is a scandal, and if you can’t see the relation between a strangely destroyed key piece of evidence in an ongoing scandal and what happened 41 years ago with a strangely destroyed key piece of evidence in an ongoing scandal, something is wrong not with the story but with your news judgment. (We won’t even go into the second story last week, that the IRS sent a big database full of confidential taxpayer information to the FBI.)

It would be very good to see the mainstream press call for a special prosecutor, fully armed with the powers to get to the bottom of the case.

Democrats don’t want this for the obvious reasons, and Republicans on the Hill haven’t wanted it because they want all the attention while they hold hearings. Why share the lights with a boring old independent investigator who’ll take his time? But the very number of hearings and their lack of effect makes Republicans look worse than incompetent workers in a field office. They have proved themselves no match for the administration, which runs circles around them delaying documentation and testifying in incomprehensible gobbledygook.

Moreover, Republicans are probably wrong that they help themselves with the base by showily going after the administration. Eric Cantor long supported Congressional prerogatives here before changing his mind just a month ago, and look where he is.

*   *   *

The mischief of the Nixon administration was specific to it, to its personnel. When Chuck Colson left, he left. All the figures in that drama failed to permanently disfigure the edifice of government. They got caught, and their particular brand of mischief ended.

But the IRS scandal is different, because if it isn’t stopped—if it isn’t fully uncovered, exposed, and its instigators held accountable—it will suggest an acceptance of the politicization of the IRS, and an expected and assumed partisanship within its future actions. That will be terrible not only for citizens but for the government itself.

And the IRS scandal will also have disfigured government in a new and killing way. IRS scandals in the past were about the powerful (Richard Nixon) abusing the powerful (Edward Bennett Williams). This scandal is about the powerful (Lois Lerner, et a.) abusing the not-powerful (normal, on-the-ground Americans such as rural tea-party groups). If it comes to be understood that this kind of thing is how the government now does business, it will be terrible for the spirit and reality of the country.

So many of those who decide what is news cannot, on this issue, see the good faith and honest concern of the many who make this warning. And really, that is tragic.

*   *   *

We end with an idea and a bonus memory.

It might be fun and instructive if a great wit did a fictional diary of Lois Lerner’s computer. Assuming that apart from being a U.S. government agency administrator she’s also a grim political operative; assuming that some part of her imagination told her that sooner or later the jig will be up, that internal investigators are coming; assuming it occurred to her that a number of unfortunately incriminating emails might be found on her computer; and assuming she is not technologically clever. What might it have been like that sultry summer of ’11, when Lois Lerner decided her computer had to go? Maybe she put it in the microwave, on high, for 13½ minutes. Maybe she tried to drown the computer in a pool. Maybe she took a hammer to it, like Kathy Bates in “Misery.” Maybe she had a merlot and cooked it over a little Sterno can on the buffet table outside. Maybe she ordered it to answer questions and it took the Fifth. (Maybe it turns out the National Security Agency has the emails. Maybe Edward Snowden can get them!)

The memory:

I once met Rose Mary Woods at a gathering of old Nixon hands in the Reagan White House. I think it was a small party for Pat Buchanan, the communications director. It would have been the mid-1980s, more than a decade after Watergate. I turned and there was a fit, diminutive woman of perhaps 70, in a bright-patterned knee-length dress and matching jacket. Her reddish hair was in a bouffant. Her heels were light-colored, beige or white. She looked like a handsome lady of the Nixon era. She was cordial, friendly, but with the warmly guarded look of the accidentally infamous.

I remember it because about that time I was writing a book and pondering a certain magical aspect of the White House: At any given moment you might turn and see a human ghost, someone who’d been powerful or celebrated who had left, returned to life, and suddenly was back where he’d been a generation or two or three before.

They live in your imagination, they’re of another era, and suddenly they’re there, smiling over a glass of white wine.

Woods’s friends always believed her about the tapes, that she’d made an honest five-minute mistake. (They weren’t sure about the rest of it, the other 13½ minutes.) She was hardy and tough but had integrity and judgment—she wasn’t some grubby political operative who’d do or say anything. She probably turned down millions to write things like “The Dark Nixon I Knew,” for which in those days there was quite an appetite.

She died in her native Ohio in January 2005. At the end of that year, in a beautifully written (meaning beautifully thought and integrated) Christmas Day remembrance in the New York Times, Francis Wilkinson captured her high spirits when she was working for Richard Nixon in the 1950s and would end the day with officemates dancing at a local hotel. “In high-heeled shoes with ankle straps . . . Woods was a joyful sight, cutting loose after a 12-hour grind at the vice president’s side.”

She was one of those usually unknown people who populate government, who come from throughout the country drawn to Washington and wanting to help, wanting the sense of consequence and drama and meaning it can impart, who do their jobs well for many decades, who know what they know and then, eventually, go home. Those were good days, when everybody went home.

© 2000-2014, Peggy Noonan, all rights reserved