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.

The Pleasure of His Company Mike Nichols was a learned man who loved his work and was in love with the world.

I wrote of this two summers ago:

There was a 7-year-old boy who came over from Germany on the SS Bremen, traveling with his younger brother. They were fleeing the Nazis. The Bremen anchored on Manhattan’s west side on May 4, 1939, and the children were joined by their father, who was already in New York. They stood on deck watching all the bustle of disembarking when the boy saw something: “Across the street from where we were, and visible from the boat, was a delicatessen which had its name in neon with Hebrew letters,” he later remembered.

He was startled, then fearful. A sign in Hebrew letters—that would be impossible back home. He asked: “Is that allowed?”

“It is here,” said his father.

The little boy was Mike Nichols, the great film and stage director, who went on to do brilliant things with all that America allowed.

He died last week at 83, at the top of his game and still in the thick of it. I’m grateful this Thanksgiving just to have known him, and been his friend.

He was a great man.

Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols

We all know his work but it must be said he had such range. Everyone noted the past week that he did it all—directing on Broadway, in film, brilliant comedy act with Elaine May, comedy albums. And he had another kind of range. He had perfect pitch for the tale of a lost, affluent college graduate in the heart of Los Angeles in the 1960s, perfect pitch for a striving Staten Island working girl who wanted to make it in America in the ’80s, perfect pitch for the Midwestern working people whose story was told in “Silkwood.” He understood people! He saw their sameness, their hungers and hopes. He bothered to understand the country he first glimpsed from the Bremen.

He once told me he didn’t direct movies, he cast them. In a way it was a line and a typically modest one—it wasn’t him, it was them—but it also wasn’t. He was saying he picks actors who have the quality and depth to do what he wants, and he trusts them to come through. That is a great thing, when an artist trusts his paint.

There was something in the home that he shared with his wife, his beloved Diane Sawyer , that I always looked for when I visited. He kept a big, faded pillow on the living-room couch. It bore the words “Nothing Is Written.” When I first saw it I pointed. “You know what that’s from?” he asked. Yes, I said, “ Lawrence of Arabia, ” Robert Bolt ’s screenplay. He clapped his hands with delight. To know it was to honor what it meant—that no outcome is dictated, no impediment is insuperable; you can wrest life from its ruts, its false limits.

I can’t think of a better attitude for an artist, or any other professional for that matter.

His closest friends this week marveled at the depth of the impression he made on all whose lives he touched. “He’d make you feel you were better than you believed—smarter, funnier, more alive,” one said.

It was his way not only as an artist but as a human being to turn things on their head. A friend of his son, Max, wrote to remind him of a birthday party they’d attended years before, when she was a little girl. They had gone to see “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” In the middle of it she ran out into the lobby, terrified. Naturally a parent would be expected to follow and comfort her by explaining it wasn’t real, there was nothing to be afraid of. But it was Mike who followed her out, and he asked, “Is being scared always such a bad thing?” A soothing philosophical discussion commenced.

A friend noted something else: his unbounded excitement about life, his ability to retain a freshness, an innocence. “It was always possible that this was going to be the best dumpling, the best conversation, this play was going to have a moment in it we’d never forget. . . . He was in love with the world. He was in love with Egg McMuffins ! He took such joy in what was. Maybe the Buddhists have it wrong, maybe the great livers are the ones who love things, too—that book, that painting, the McDonald’s breakfast.”

A thing that distinguished Mike professionally is that he thought he had to know things. He came up in a generation that thought to know the theater you have to know the theater. They read. He read, all his life. He knew the canon—his Chekhov, Ibsen and Molière, his Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Tom Stoppard.

He learned his stuff in part for the sheer pleasure of learning, but in part because you have to know what has been said and thought and given to the world, you have to know what’s a cliché to be lost and what’s an ever-present truth to be resurrected or enlarged upon. Mrs. Robinson was, in fact, Phaedra. He knew, said a friend, that “every great story is a tremor from those dynamics that stretch back way over time.”

To make great art you have to know great art. And so his learned, highly cultivated mind. He dropped out of the University of Chicago and sought to teach himself through great books and smart people.

Great writers and directors have to start as great readers or it won’t work, nothing needed from the past will be brought into the future, and art will become thinner, less deep, less meaningful and so, amazingly, less fun, less moving and true.

The makers of American culture should return to this old style, which isn’t really old and yet is being lost.

Mike Nichols cared deeply—this was apparent in his later years—about keeping the American culture a thing of stature and height and radiance. It was the subject of our last long conversation, late this summer.

When he directed “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway two years ago he was, in fact, rescuing a classic and making it new again for those who had never seen or even known of this great play. He did a lot of rescue work. He wasn’t stuffy or old fashioned—that’s the last thing he was!—he loved the new, the breakthrough, the brave moment that he’d never seen before. But he wanted very much for us to retain and maintain the excellence of American theater and film.

An anecdote, about a friend who really got him:

The morning after Mike’s death, a friend of the family called those who had been in touch to invite them to a small gathering in New York the next afternoon. Among them was the actress Emma Thompson, who knew of his death and was bereft. Now, told of the gathering, she was crestfallen. She was in London, there was a big event months in the making the very next day, it wasn’t possible. Of course, she was told, we understand. Mike would understand.

The next day the gathering began, and first through the door was Emma Thompson. “Where else would anyone who knew him be?” she said.

Lucky us, that the Bremen came here.

Standards, Fallen

There is so much that is deeply strange in a New York Times story reported Friday by Jason Horowitz.

Assuming the article is factually correct, and it certainly appears to be well reported, the president of the United States phoned the majority leader of the U.S. Senate during a legislative crisis to complain that one of the senator’s staffers is a leaker. Unbeknown to the president, the staffer was listening in on the call and broke in to rebut the president’s accusation.

This is more like a television version of Washington—something a scriptwriter of a D.C.-based drama would concoct—than Washington as it has traditionally operated and should be expected to operate.

Presidents don’t call senators to complain that someone in their office got them mad. That is below a president. (It is especially below one during a crisis.) If persistent leaks get under a president’s skin, he has one of the tough guys around him make that call. If it’s really serious, he has his chief of staff do it. But a president doesn’t lower himself to making accusations, he doesn’t stoop to expressing personal anger at a mere congressional staffer. Presidents have bigger things to do. They also know that everyone leaks. They roll their eyes and keep walking.

Senators don’t have staffers surreptitiously listen in on phone calls from the president of the United States. If they want to request that someone listen in and take notes, they can, and the White House can give or decline permission in advance of the call. Has any senator ever violated this etiquette? Probably, sure. But it is a violation, and they would know it is a violation and not something to brag about.

Staffers to senators don’t jump in on phone calls to argue with a president of the United States. It is disrespectful and a violation of the president’s stature.

Staffers or senators who did do such things would not talk about it, would not put it into the air on Capitol Hill so that a reporter could pick it up and tell the story.

Standards of behavior even on relatively little things appear to have fallen so far in Washington that you get the impression the people in this story never knew there were standards in the first place. They come across like people who don’t know the rudiments, who have no sense of the courtesies and dignity of their respective positions.

And of course the story is a gossipy reminder of how much such things have changed—not improved, just changed—in Washington.

Thinking about it, I remembered two things, not the same in weight but sort of connected thematically. The first is what happened the night I heard about the Monica Lewinsky story in January 1998. I had written a book, there was a book party, and two good friends, one a jurist and the other a journalist, both Democrats, came up to me breathless.

From memory:

“Did you hear? It just broke, a big story about the president and a woman.”

I shook my head. There had always been gossip about Bill Clinton. People had been hearing it for years, why is this new?

“No, there are tapes.”

Tapes? Huh.

“She’s young, an intern or something. They were in the White House—the Oval Office!”

At this point I said, “Whoa. Whoa.” Because my instinct was that it wasn’t true, presidents don’t do things like that, this sounds more like a novel than life. Maybe the girl is just someone with an extremely odd and active fantasy life.

But my friends believed the story, and I could tell that they felt a little sorry for me that I didn’t get it.

Which I didn’t. Because no president would act like that. It took days and weeks for me to fully absorb it. And then I got mad, because the people involved in the scandal were acting as vandals and tearing down things it took centuries to build.

My only personal experience of the White House was of two men, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, for whom such behavior would have been impossible.

If you work for American presidents who are good men, you will inevitably carry forward in your head the assumption that American presidents will be good men. Your expectations will be toward high personal standards and normality. If you started out working for leaders who are not good men, on the other hand, you can go forward with a cynicism and suspicion that are perhaps more appropriate to your era.

The second thing the Horowitz story made me think of is this. I have remarked, and I think others have also, on the broad, deep impact of the television drama “The West Wing.” It spawned a generation of Washington-based television dramas. (Interestingly, they have become increasingly dark.) It also inspired a generation of young people to go to Washington and work in politics. I always thought the show gave young people a sense of the excitement of work, of being a professional and of being part of something that could make things better.

But it also gave them a sense of how things are done in Washington. And here the show’s impact was not entirely beneficial, because people do not—should not—relate to each other in Washington as they do on TV. “The West Wing” was a television show—it was show business—and it had to conform to the rules of drama and entertainment, building tension and inventing situations that wouldn’t really happen in real life.

Once when I briefly worked on the show, there was a scene in which the press secretary confronts the president and tells him off about some issue. Then she turned her back and walked out. I wrote a note to the creator, Aaron Sorkin, and said, Aaron, press secretaries don’t upbraid presidents in this way, and they don’t punctuate their point by turning their backs and storming out. I cannot remember his reply, but it was probably along the lines of, “In TV they do!”

“The West Wing” was so groundbreaking, and had in so many ways such a benign impact. But I wonder if it didn’t give an entire generation the impression that how you do it on a TV drama is how you do it in real life.

And so the president calls the senator and the aide listens in and cuts the president off. And things in Washington are more like a novel than life, but a cheap novel, and more like a TV show than life, but a poor and increasingly dark one.

The Loneliest President Since Nixon Facing adversity, Obama has no idea how to respond.

Seven years ago I was talking to a longtime Democratic operative on Capitol Hill about a politician who was in trouble. The pol was likely finished, he said. I was surprised. Can’t he change things and dig himself out? No. “People do what they know how to do.” Politicians don’t have a vast repertoire. When they get in a jam they just do what they’ve always done, even if it’s not working anymore.

This came to mind when contemplating President Obama. After a devastating election, he is presenting himself as if he won. The people were not saying no to his policies, he explained, they would in fact like it if Republicans do what he tells them.

You don’t begin a new relationship with a threat, but that is what he gave Congress: Get me an immigration bill I like or I’ll change U.S. immigration law on my own.

Obama on the mountainMr. Obama is doing what he knows how to do—stare them down and face them off. But his circumstances have changed. He used to be a conquering hero, now he’s not. On the other hand he used to have to worry about public support. Now, with no more elections before him, he has the special power of the man who doesn’t care.

I have never seen a president in exactly the position Mr. Obama is, which is essentially alone. He’s got no one with him now. The Republicans don’t like him, for reasons both usual and particular: They have had no good experiences with him. The Democrats don’t like him, for their own reasons plus the election loss. Before his post-election lunch with congressional leaders, he told the press that he will judiciously consider any legislation, whoever sends it to him, Republicans or Democrats. His words implied that in this he was less partisan and more public-spirited than the hacks arrayed around him. It is for these grace notes that he is loved. No one at the table looked at him with colder, beadier eyes than outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid , who clearly doesn’t like him at all.

The press doesn’t especially like the president; in conversation they evince no residual warmth. This week at the Beijing summit there was no sign the leaders of the world had any particular regard for him. They can read election returns. They respect power and see it leaking out of him. If Mr. Obama had won the election they would have faked respect and affection.

Vladimir Putin delivered the unkindest cut, patting Mr. Obama’s shoulder reassuringly. Normally that’s Mr. Obama’s move, putting his hand on your back or shoulder as if to bestow gracious encouragement, needy little shrimp that you are. It’s a dominance move. He’s been doing it six years. This time it was Mr. Putin doing it to him. The president didn’t like it.

From Reuters: “‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ Putin was overheard saying in English in Obama’s general direction, referring to the ornate conference room. ‘Yes,’ Obama replied, coldly, according to journalists who witnessed the scene.”

The last time we saw a president so alone it was Richard Nixon, at the end of his presidency, when the Democrats had turned on him, the press hated him, and the Republicans were fleeing. It was Sen. Barry Goldwater, the GOP’s standard-bearer in 1964, and House Minority Leader John Rhodes, also of Arizona, who went to the White House to tell Nixon his support in Congress had collapsed, they would vote to impeach. Years later Goldwater called Nixon “The world’s biggest liar.”

But Nixon had one advantage Obama does not: the high regard of the world’s leaders, who found his downfall tragic (such ruin over such a trifling matter) and befuddling (he didn’t keep political prisoners chained up in dungeons, as they did. Why such a fuss?).

Nixon’s isolation didn’t end well.

Last Sunday Mr. Obama, in an interview with CBS ’s Bob Schieffer, spoke of his motivation, how he’s always for the little guy. “I love just being with the American people. . . . You know how passionate I am about trying to help them.” He said what is important is “a guy who’s lost his job or lost his home or . . . is trying to send a kid to college.” When he talks like that, as he does a lot, you get the impression his romantic vision of himself is Tom Joad in the movie version of “The Grapes of Wrath.” “I’ll be all around . . . wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.”

I mentioned last week that the president has taken to filibustering, to long, rambling answers in planned sit-down settings—no questions on the fly walking from here to there, as other presidents have always faced. The press generally allows him to ramble on, rarely fighting back as they did with Nixon. But I have noticed Mr. Obama uses a lot of words as padding. He always has, but now he does it more. There’s a sense of indirection and obfuscation. You can say, “I love you,” or you can say, “You know, feelings will develop, that happens among humans and it’s good it happens, and I have always said, and I said it again just last week, that you are a good friend, I care about you, and it’s fair to say in terms of emotional responses that mine has escalated or increased somewhat, and ‘love’ would not be a wholly inappropriate word to use to describe where I’m coming from.”

When politicians do this they’re trying to mush words up so nothing breaks through. They’re leaving you dazed and trying to make it harder for you to understand what’s truly being said.

It is possible the president is responding to changed circumstances with a certain rigidity because no one ever stood in his way before. Most of his adult life has been a smooth glide. He had family challenges and an unusual childhood, but as an adult and a professional he never faced fierce, concentrated resistance. He was always magic. Life never came in and gave it to him hard on the jaw. So he really doesn’t know how to get up from the mat. He doesn’t know how to struggle to his feet and regain his balance. He only knows how to throw punches. But you can’t punch from the mat.

He only knows how to do what he’s doing.

In the meantime he is killing his party. Gallup this week found that the Republicans for the first time in three years beat the Democrats on favorability, and also that respondents would rather have Congress lead the White House than the White House lead Congress.

A few weeks ago a conservative intellectual asked me: “How are we going to get through the next two years?” It was a rhetorical question; he was just sharing his anxiety. We have a president who actually can’t work with Congress, operating in a capital in which he is resented and disliked and a world increasingly unimpressed by him, and so increasingly predatory.

Anyway, for those who are young and not sure if what they are seeing is wholly unusual: Yes, it is wholly unusual.

A Message Sent to a Grudging President After a thumpin’, Obama doubles down on hostility, antagonism and distance.

The drubbin’, thumpin’, poundin’ was a two-part wave, a significant Republican rise in the U.S. Senate and a Democratic collapse in the governorships.

It was one of those nights neither party ever forgets.

Republicans won not only because of a favorable map. In solid Democratic states, they won big or came close. Nor were the results due only to low midterm turnout. Nate Cohn, in the New York Times , noted that turnout in Colorado was up over 2010, yet Republican Cory Gardner beat incumbent Sen. Mark Udall with room to spare. The sheer number of blowouts was mind-boggling. Sen. Mitch McConnell was supposed to win in Kentucky, but not by 15 points. In Arkansas the Republican challenger, Tom Cotton, beat Democratic incumbent, Sen. Mark Pryor, by 17 points. In Georgia, where the Senate race was assumed to be close, the Republican won by eight. Republican Pat Roberts, left for dead in Kansas months ago, won by 10.

President Barrack ObamaAmong the governors, Republican John Kasich won re-election in swing-state Ohio by an astounding 31 points. In South Carolina, incumbent Nikki Haley beat her Democratic challenger by 15 points. In solid-blue Illinois, the Republican challenger, Bruce Rauner, turned out the incumbent by five points; in solid-Democratic Maryland, the Republican candidate for governor won by a solid five. Scott Walker, perpetually under siege in Wisconsin, the focus of public-employee-union ferocity and targeted nationally by Democrats who needed to knock him off, also won by five.

It was not in the least a charisma election, a sweeping expression of support for a character or personality or movement. It was a message election. Sweeps like this come down to policy and governance. America on Tuesday told one party no, you’re not doing it right, we don’t like what we’re seeing, and your preoccupations (birth control, “War on Women”) are not our priorities.

The president said he was not on the ballot but his policies were. Those policies were resoundingly repudiated.

*   *   *

But that is only one of the amazing things that happened this week. The second is how the president responded.

A sweep this size tends to resolve some things. The landscape shifts, political figures accommodate themselves to it.

Common sense says a chastened president would acknowledge the obvious—some things aren’t working, he has made some mistakes—and, in Mr. Obama’s case, hit the reset button with Congress. Reach out, be humble. Humility has power. It shows people that you have some give—you get the message, you are capable of self-correcting.

That is not what he’s doing. The president is instead doubling down on hostility, antagonism and distance.

What a mistake. What a huge, historic mistake, not only for him but also for his party.

In his news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Obama was grim and grudging, barely bothering to hide suppressed anger. “Republicans had a good night.” He was unwilling to explain or characterize what happened. “I’ll leave it to all of you and the professional pundits to pick through yesterday’s results.” He took no personal responsibility: The people sent a message and it is that Washington must work “as hard as they do.” He was unwilling to say what went wrong, why his party’s candidates didn’t want him near them on the trail. His answers were long, filibuster-y, meant to run out the clock. It was clear the White House wanted to say he met with reporters for more than an hour. He did. At one point he tried to smile but couldn’t quite pull it off; it came across as a Nixon-like flexing of the rictus muscles. (I tried to describe it in my notes. “Hatey” was the best I could do.)

There were airy generalities—“This town doesn’t work well”—and a few humblebrags: “I have a unique responsibility to try and make this town work”; “I’m the guy who’s elected by everybody.”

Most seriously and consequentially—the huge mistake—is that Mr. Obama said he will address immigration through executive action unless Congress sends a comprehensive bill to him that he finds attractive. He said this just after a news conference in which the presumed next Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, in a post-election statement that was actually conciliatory and constructive, said any such move by the president would “poison the well” with Congress. It would be experienced by Republicans on the Hill as pure aggression.

The president’s use of broad executive action would kill any chance of compromise or progress with Congress. And the amazing thing is that this isn’t even in his interests.

What is in his interests is for him to go forward in a spirit of compromise and try to reach agreements on the Hill through negotiations. This would be a relief after six years of nonstop acrimony. Republicans need an end of acrimony too: They want to show that they’re not just shutdown artists, as their foes say, but that they are a governing party in whose hands the country is safe. After a few bills were passed, people would start to feel that they were seeing progress. This would help the president get a new sentence defining him. The current sentence is something like, “Wow, that didn’t work, he really had the wrong skill sets.” Two years of governing peace might get him, “He had a dynamic first two years, lost the thread, was re-elected, then there was a lot of mess but he stabilized and got serious.” That’s not a bad sentence.

It is confounding—not surprising but stunning, unhelpful and ill-judged—that the president is instead going for antagonism, combat and fruitless friction.

This is not just poor strategy, it seems to me to be mildly delusional. Chris Matthews erupted on MSNBC: “There’s something in this guy that just plays to his constituency and acts like there’s no other world out there!”

That’s true. And deeply strange in a politician. It’s as if he doesn’t think he has to work with others, he only has to be right. I think Mr. Obama sees himself as a centrist because he often resists the pressures of the leftward-most edge of his base. Therefore in his imagination he is in the middle, the center. If he is in the middle of a great centrist nation, how can they turn on him? The answer: They are confused. This is their flaw, not his. He’s not going to let their logical flaws change his game.

And so the future may well be nonstop combat between the Hill and the White House. If the president does a big executive action, the Republican Congress will no longer think negotiations and deals are possible. They will over the coming years send him legislation that they can pass with the support of their majorities and moderate Democrats. If he vetoes, they will try to override.

The Republicans will be set up as the party passing bills that go in certain directions on certain issues, and those bills will no doubt be generally popular, or popular with the Republican base. If the bills are vetoed and can’t be overridden, Republicans will say they are frustrated by that willful loner—that obstructionist—in the White House.

That will probably set up the GOP pretty well for 2016. It will keep the party’s activists in a constant state of agitated alert.

Once again the president is doing his party no favors.

This is no way to run a railroad. The president here is doing what he has been doing for a while, helping Republicans look good. That is an amazing strategy for a Democratic president to adopt.

How to Lose, and Win, Graciously

If the president’s party loses big on Tuesday, as appears likely, much of the loss will be due to 3 C’s—competence, coherence and credibility. Competence: The administration has shown little talent for or focused interest in running the federal government well, and has managed the executive agencies very poorly. Coherence: The administration has been unable to explain persuasively the reasoning behind its current priorities (global warming? really?) or its decisions in areas from foreign policy to Ebola in a way that has allowed the public to follow their thinking. Credibility: If you want your doctor you can keep your doctor, red lines, it’s highly unlikely Ebola will come here, there’s not a smidgen of corruption in the IRS, etc. It’s a terrible thing when a president loses his credibility.

Absolute failure in any one of the 3 C’s will bring trouble, and when you fail in all three you get very big, even historic trouble.

All this explains nostalgia for a certain former president. You can get quite a conversation going in any room in Manhattan now by comparing Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter, with everyone defending Carter.

It will mean a great deal how the president handles all this.

Two weeks ago we lauded Bill Clinton’s handling of his 1994 midterm drubbing. In a news conference the next day he accepted responsibility and suggested the political meaning of the election was that the public was more conservative than he was. That took some guts and humility. Cleverness, too. By convincing those on his left that they had to face reality, he opened the door for his historic compromises with the Contract Congress. This in turn gave Clinton room to breathe and gather his forces.

I wasn’t able to quote a lot of George W. Bush’s press conference the evening after the second term midterm thumpin’ in which his party lost 30 House seats, six Senate seats, and control of both chambers.

But in his news conference you hear the sound of an old graciousness that has eluded President Obama, who has long said there’s little he can do with obstructionists in Congress who are stuck on hating him.

For those who think Mr. Obama has faced unusual levels of rhetoric, consider this question from a reporter to Mr. Bush:

“Thank you, Mr. President. With all due respect, Nancy Pelosi has called you incompetent, a liar, the emperor with no clothes and, as recently as yesterday, dangerous. How will you work with someone who has such little respect for your leadership and who is third in line to the presidency?”

This is how Mr. Bush replied. “I’ve been around politics a long time. I understand when campaigns end and I know when governing begins. And I’m going to work with people of both parties. You know, look, people say unfortunate things at times. But if you hold grudges in this line of work, you’re never going to get anything done. And my intention is to get some things done, and soon—we’re start visiting with her Friday with the idea of coming together.”

That is the sound of political graciousness. It would be nice to hear it from Mr. Obama on Wednesday.

As for the Republicans, if they have as good a Tuesday night as they increasingly expect, it would be nice if they were gracious and big-minded, and a real relief if they didn’t look smug and get that curled smile that says “We got it back, baby, and Harry Reid will soon be out of that pretty office.” Wouldn’t it be nice if they were happy but modest, and made it clear they’re aware of the fix we’re in? “It is not about me and it’s not, my hardworking friends, about you. It’s about this thing we were given called America. It needs our help. So we are happy tonight, but it’s work in the morning, and the kind of work that is the most important, saving our country.”

Or, more pointedly: “I know what this is. It’s the base giving the party one last chance. They are telling us we better do something. That’s the meaning I take. and I mean to come through.”

On Oscar de la Renta and Ben Bradlee

He made women look beautiful. That is, among other things, a gracious thing for a man to do.

He was an elegant man, which you’d expect—his job was elegance—but he was also an example of great personal dignity and, I hope, a carrier of it. He was sick for many years before his death and bore his illness manfully, with grace and containment.

His life was fancy but he was no snob. The last time I spent time with him, two years ago at a friend’s birthday party in a Manhattan Italian restaurant, the waiters surrounded him at evening’s end. They didn’t want to know about movie stars or first ladies, they wanted to know more about something he’d mentioned in passing when he’d been there before. Many decades ago he had, as a young man and before he was successful, gone to an obscure Asian shirt maker who made shirts so beautiful and so inexpensive that to that day he got all his shirts made there. Who was the shirt maker? How could they get the shirts? He stayed at the end of the party, a longish one, to tell them exactly where to go, how to order, why he still wore only those shirts. Having found perfection as a young man he wasn’t about to let it go. You have to be loyal to excellence. The men appreciated that in him, and he appreciated it in them.

He struck me, in perhaps a dozen conversations over many years, as unjudging and yet discerning. That is a hard combination to hold in your head. It’s hard not to be censorious when you can see.

But he took people case by case and without letting previous assumptions govern what he experienced. He was a loyal and affectionate friend. He knew the kind of people about whom others want to gossip, but he didn’t put his friends’ names into the air. That might have enhanced his immediate status but it would have endangered them so he didn’t do it. He was discreet without seeming to withhold information, another hard combination. There was something about him that was Old New York: He had true and real friendships with people across all spectrums, in all areas and of all cultural and political persuasions. He didn’t make much of it but there was grit in his loyalty. If he liked you, you were in and deserved his protectiveness, and if you weren’t in with anyone else that was their problem.

Once, 22 years ago, he called me out of the blue and asked if I would help him think through a high school commencement address. He talked about what he wanted to tell these gifted and wonderful 17- and 18-year-old boys. I listened as his words bubbled. At the end I told him what I thought I was hearing: He wanted to tell them to have wise hearts and warm brains. He wanted them not to be cold in their thinking and judging, and yet not to be unquestioningly accepting of their own emotional responses to things. Yes, he said, that’s it. And that’s what he said.

I think now that was a description of him: a warm mind and a wise heart.

I said at the top that I hope Oscar proves to have been a carrier of dignity, an encourager of it, even when he’s gone. There are fewer and fewer in my beloved city who can make this old town work with all its divided and competing parts. Oscar was both a cultural and social force, and as those things he was both a leader and an example. He penetrated to the essence of a person and put aside the outer differences in which we are all encased.

New York needs to remember this style. My city now is increasingly a town of babyish partisans, especially on the liberal and Democratic side, which is the biggest and almost only side. Their primary fault is not that they can see no goodness on other sides, though that is often true, but that they don’t even know what their own side believes, and so they cannot see potential areas of progress and peace. They know nothing. They watch a little cable, go to dinner, take their cues. Not only are they smug, their smugness is unearned. And they are running the city, in almost every area.

Oscar, that discerning man, was not like that. I hope the old style of his dignity and discernment spreads.

There is something I said to a friend I was visiting in Connecticut three weeks ago, after Oscar and his wife, Annette, equally elegant and discerning, called to say they could not make it by for dinner Saturday night. He was not feeling well, recent tests were bad. Unspoken but obvious as my friend relayed the news was the fact that his long struggle was ending.

I told my friend what I thought of when I thought of Oscar. It was the scene in the movie “A River Runs Through It” when the minister and father of the murdered son remembers, with his surviving son, the boy who had died. His son tried to sum him up, and stumbled into banalities.

“You know more than that,” says the father. “He was beautiful.”

So too for this worldly and thoughtfully, I think perhaps lovingly, open minded and encompassing man, the stoic and dignified Oscar De la Renta. Rest in peace.

*   *   *

Ben Bradlee was something else, a man who I’m fairly certain at some point understood himself to be playing one of the great parts of all time, that of Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee—rogue, irreverent crusader, charismatic leader of journalism, upper-class WASP throwback who had the wit to see his kind were a receding wave and he might as well be at the top as it crested, and show the boys how it’s done.

The great work of his life was Watergate, which took down a Republican president. Those writing of him tend to note he didn’t care much about politics or ideology, and that is certainly true. He loved journalism, he loved the story, the hunt, the chase. But be honest: He was only too happy if Republicans were the quarry because, let’s face it, they weren’t in the least attractive or stylish or from anyplace you’d find . . . interesting. They had no élan. They didn’t know how to do it. They were grubby, or earnest, or sheep who thought themselves foxes. And Bradlee did care about those things, about style and how people of his time, class, ethos and profession viewed the good guys and the bad guys. Ideology and stands and policies were part of it, always—but only part.

Meeting him over the years I found him friendly, burly, aware of his power. He had a beautiful quality in a journalist, the curiosity of a child. It was almost innocent. He wanted to know why things were and who did what and how it happened. He loved information. Some people think there’s nothing new under the sun, but you could imagine him bounding out of bed each morning: “What’s up! What’s happening! Who was at the party?”

I never quite understood why his friendship with John F. Kennedy was so controversial. Why shouldn’t they have been friends? They were a lot alike, from the same generation, with similar backgrounds—both fought in the war, the same interest in power. Bradlee got exclusives from JFK; JFK in turn got the kind of treatment a young man on the way up who didn’t want to lose access would tend to provide. They were practical men. But Bradlee didn’t try to hide their relationship and in fact wrote books about it.

Shortly after Bradlee’s second memoir came out, I bumped into him, congratulated him and mentioned how candid I thought he was about Kennedy in the book. “Candid?” he said. “Candid?”

Um, yes, I said, not understanding his reaction. Was he telling me he had not been candid? Was he saying his candor was to be expected? I never knew, but he was defensive on the subject. Maybe this was because of conservative criticism, though I can’t imagine a conservative could ruffle Ben Bradlee. I think some Torquemadas of his profession accused him of being insufficiently pure. But I never understood journalism to be pure.

The beautiful part of Ben Bradlee’s legacy: leaving the American public a memory of a newsroom run by a man so personally confident he would back young nobodies doggedly going after a story that, if true, was going to be huge, generation-sized, but the pursuit of which carried risk. He backed Woodward and Bernstein. That was his job. But it doesn’t always happen that way in journalism, that the top guy does his job. Bradlee, and Katharine Graham, deserves credit for it, and fame. If the Post had been all wrong in its Watergate reporting, and not just wrong at times as it was, it could have done the Post in.

Also he was by all accounts a heck of a lot of fun, and all professions need people who remind you of joy.

Other parts of Bradlee’s legacy are less fortunate though not precisely or only his fault. We did see him as Jason Robards. The Watergate saga made two things clear to an entire rising generation of journalists in the 1970s and ’80s, many of whom were more explicitly political and ideological than Bradlee himself. One is that you can make a career going after Republicans and conservatives in politics and government.

The other, more damaging, is that you can advance and pursue what you think of as ideological progress and political justice by going into journalism. Journalism in this thinking isn’t an end in itself, it’s something you do to advance an agenda.

In the late ’70s some newsrooms were going from places populated by tough, professional journalists who were personally more or less liberal, to young people of the left who were operating within journalism to achieve a higher political justice. But they didn’t say they were people of the left. They thought of themselves as normal and modern, and as normal, modern people, they didn’t like Republicans or conservatism. This evolution has never sufficiently righted itself.

I have made references to class, and here is a way it figured in as a journalistic reality. It is the famous “Jimmy’s World” story, in which a Washington Post reporter told the story of an impoverished 8-year-old boy in the District whose father was a drug addict and who shot his son up with heroin. When the story’s fraudulence was exposed, Bradlee moved to find out what had happened and return the Pulitzer Prize the story had received.

But I remember reading the original story the day it came out, and knowing as I read—literally knowing as i read, and I was not alone—that the story was not true, that it was fiction. I knew this because in my life I had known heroin addicts. And heroin addicts do not waste their heroin on children, they want it for themselves. They are desperate people in search of their own expensive soothing and pleasure, not anyone else’s, certainly not a child’s.

Ben Bradlee was not a man whose background would give him that kind of knowledge, nor was he heavily surrounded by people who would have it. The reporter, Janet Cooke, wasn’t just a fabulist, she was a fabulist who didn’t have a clue as to the realities of which she was writing.

Journalists once were rougher folk. They came from the bottom or middle and scrapped their way up. In Bradlee’s time, and not only at his newspaper, it all became fancy, and journalism became another step removed from life as it is lived. Reporters now are mostly from the Ivy League, the upper middle, are tidily raised, directed toward attainment, and seem to see large parts of America as a teamin’ steamin’ Petri dish with all these bacteria running around . . .

When legacy media lost its monopoly in the past 15 years it was surely in part because of the elite nature—and uniform thinking—of big journalism’s practitioners. As soon as people got other options they took them.

That’s not Ben Bradlee’s fault, but these trends were coming forward when he was the biggest guy in the field, and in ways he contributed. Janet Cooke was a beautiful young black woman who said she’d gone to Vassar. She hadn’t, but she knew what to say to get into the Post.

Ben Bradlee was a great editor, a vivid figure, a man of guts and a knockoff of nobody.

He wasn’t afraid of history, he entered it each day.

He had hunger, and hunger in life—hunger for life—is a beautiful thing.

Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, rest in peace.

From Ellis Island to Ebola Is sacrificing a bit of comfort for public health such a great indignity?

On a bookshelf in my home in a glass-and-brass frame I keep my great-aunt’s Ellis Island health card. It’s cardboard, about as big as your hand. She wore it on her coat during her nine-day journey from Ireland. Every day the ship’s surgeon (possibly brusquely, probably officiously) examined her for signs of acute or long-term illness. The card noted her details—immigrant, steerage, age about 20—and other facts. SS California out of Londonderry, 1909, Mary Jane Byrne, last residence Glenties. On the back it says, “Keep this Card to avoid detention at Quarantine and in Railroads in the United States.” If she failed the physicals she would be held at Ellis Island or sent back. There’s a little notch to mark each day the doctor found her healthy. In the end there were nine.

She disembarked at Ellis Island where, so enraged at this crude, assaultive violation of her civil liberties—being subjected to intimate questioning by a stranger, feeling harassed by the daily threat of rejection and expulsion, being, in effect, immigrant-shamed—she got a lawyer, sued the U.S. government, and, with Emma Goldman and Floyd Dell, started a civil-liberties movement that upended American immigration law.

Wait, that’s not what happened! She accepted with grace the needs and demands of her new nation, took no offense, and acknowledged the utility of a quarantine or ban—why would America be bringing in sick people who could spread disease? She settled in Brooklyn near the Navy Yard and became a maid, a job she worked as a true profession, for half a century. Thus was America built.

The card she wore on her coat? She kept it as a souvenir. She didn’t know it was a relic of abuse, she thought it was a first palpable sign of citizenship. And so, 50 years later, she passed it on to me.

I miss such humility, don’t you? Did we fail to encourage it by forgetting to honor it? Or, if these questions are insufficiently ideological, whatever happened to courtesy to the collective? We should bring it back. We could answer the current quarantine question if we faced it with the calm of a 1909 immigrant.

View from Ellis IslandAn American nurse returns from Sierra Leone after treating Ebola patients. She did that on her vacation. We are proud of her. After she lands at Newark Airport she is hustled into quarantine. She is greatly shocked and indignant, loudly protests in the media. Her rights are being violated, her treatment is “inhumane.” By that she perhaps meant uncomfortable—a tent, paper scrubs, no shower. It was all on-the-fly and disorganized, a state scrambling to do what the federal government would not.

The nurse got sprung and is currently in Maine, refusing quarantine, threatening legal action, and gaily bicycling past media scrums. I see a future in politics.

Should she have been quarantined? Of course. Because she is at higher than normal risk of developing and transmitting a deadly virus.

She has been tested for the disease, tests came back negative, and she has no symptoms. But—do we need to keep saying this?—the same was true of Thomas Duncan, the Liberian visitor who later developed Ebola and died. As a doctor said, it takes time for the viral load to become big enough to register. The nurse probably won’t get sick—she looks like a person who knows how to protect herself—but why not be careful?

The nurse’s case of course makes us think of the New York City doctor who came back from Guinea a few weeks ago after helping people there. He ran all over New York—subways, restaurants, bowling alley—before he came down with Ebola. The New York Post this week quoted law-enforcement officials saying the doctor at first claimed he’d self-quarantined, then admitted he hadn’t. But to be blithely bopping around when he knew he might be carrying a dread illness whose spread would concern an entire city—that was, and I hope I’m not breaching protocols here, discourteous. It wasn’t nice of him to scare everyone like that.

It would have been gracious if the nurse, hearing of heightened public anxiety, and concerned for the safety of others, had patiently accepted the situation and expressed understanding.

Instead she, and the sick doctor, acted as if, when a microbe meets a respected and altruistic health-care professional, it, like the general public, is expected to bow.

Doctors Without Borders suggests those returning from health-care work in West Africa not go to work for 21 days. The military will quarantine U.S. troops back from West Africa for 21 days. Why can’t we have an overall national policy that establishes this? Why are the states forced to do it—then pressured not to?

It doesn’t seem to matter if quarantined individuals are at home by themselves, with a cop posted at the front door, or alone in another setting. The only point is that they not endanger anybody.

Support among the American public for quarantine appears at this point to be overwhelming. You can know this if you walk down the street and ask people, or if you look at a CBS poll that found 80% of respondents think citizens returning from West Africa should be quarantined until it’s clear they do not have the disease.

But America’s “professionals” in the scientific and medical communities, and certainly those in the White House, seem deeply uninterested in the views of common people. When pressed on the issue they, especially the president, offer only gobbledygook and slogans. We can’t be safe here until they’re safe over there! They sound like propagandists for Bleeding Belgium in World War I.

The only argument against a quarantine that makes sense is that the decision might dissuade U.S. health workers from going to West Africa. It can easily be answered. Pass a law to pay everyone’s full salary while they’re quarantined. Make it a free vacation. Get them every kind of benefit and service possible for those three weeks. And then when they’re well, thank them publicly. Have them in the balcony at the next State of the Union!

Three weeks off and the thanks of a grateful nation. That’s not a disincentive, it’s an incentive.

It must be noted that all this—the quarantine argument, the travel ban—is another expression of the deep, tearing distance between America’s professional and political elites, who operate as if they are estranged from common sense, and normal people, who are becoming more estranged from the elites, their oblivious and politicized masters.

That distance has been growing all my adult life, but the Ebola argument has brought it into sharper relief. The elites should start twigging onto it. They are no longer immediately respected, their guidance is not reflexively taken. They seem more immersed in political thinking—what is the ideologically enlightened position to take, where’s the boss on it?—than in protecting public health.

Or thinking commonsensically, like your great-aunt.

Which is too bad because great-aunts built America.

All this will be part of the story on Tuesday, in the elections. It is hard to believe you can patronize people, and play them, and they will not, first chance they get, sharply rebuke you.