Peggy Noonan

Columns, pieces and posts

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 But little children who are blank, withdrawn, who don’t show or at some point know what they’re feeling—those children are in trouble.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.

The VA Scandal Is a Crisis of Leadership Obama’s inattention to managing the government may kill the progressive project.

The Veterans Affairs scandal involves charges of manipulation and falsification of medical waiting lists and systemwide rigging to hide delayed or inadequate treatment, which may have caused the deaths of some of those waiting for care. There are whistle-blowers, allegations of local coverups, and the possibility of criminal charges. Also becoming clearer are two motives for those involved in what appears to have been a racket: their compensation and their career trajectories.

This scandal won’t go away as others have, because all America is united in this thought: We care about our military veterans. We’ve asked a great deal of them, and they have a right to expect a great deal from us. Also, everyone in America knows what it’s like to go to a bureaucracy when you’re in need and get jerked around and ignored.

The scandal also prompts this thought: Barack Obama is killing the reputation of government. He is killing the thing he loves through insufficient oversight. He doesn’t do the plodding, unshowy, unromantic work of making government work. In the old political formulation, he’s a show horse, not a workhorse.

The president’s inattention to management—his laxity, his failure to understand that government isn’t magic, that it must be forced into working, clubbed each day into achieving adequacy, and watched like a hawk—is undercutting what he stands for, the progressive project that says the federal government is the primary answer to the nation’s ills.

He is allowing the federal government to become what any large institution will become unless you stop it: a slobocracy.

The president and his staff don’t seem to know that by the time things start bubbling up from the agencies and reach the Oval Office the scandal has already happened, even if it’s not in the press yet, and the answer isn’t to prepare proactive spin but to clean up the mess, end the scandal, fire people—a lot of people—establish accountability, change bad practices, and make the agency work again.

Department of Veterans' AffairsThe administration’s sharpest attention goes to public relations, not reality. This time even their spin has failed. They didn’t fully apprehend the moment or the media landscape. Media people, cable and mainstream, are very, very interested in showing their respect for and engagement with veterans. They made a mistake with the veterans of Vietnam; they’ll never make it again. They like being helpful to heroes, and it does them good to be associated with regular men and women who’ve served. Vets, their friends and families comprise a significant share of the audience. The VA scandal not only allows journalists to stand up for vets, it allows them to demonstrate, at just the right moment—in the waning years of the administration, with the president’s numbers low and his standing wobbly—a certain detachment from Mr. Obama’s fortunes. They’re independent.

There is another management and accountability question here. It appears that part of the VA story is that local managers and administrators were given bonuses and the prospect of promotions for reducing wait times—so they falsified the records. What was meant to be an incentive to productivity became an incentive to lie.

Have we seen this before? Yes. The VA scandal is starting to look like the public school scandals in which administrators fudge test scores to get more money for themselves and their schools. Higher test scores equal more money and a chance to advance professionally. So they claim higher scores.

The question a good executive in either system would ask right now is: Do such incentives make things better or worse? Do they encourage real improvement or gaming the system?

When you look at public school systems you often see a surprisingly large number of bureaucrats and fewer than expected actual teachers. Is something like that true at the VA? Are there too many clerks filing fraudulent forms and not enough doctors, nurses, aides and examination rooms? If so, why? What steps should be taken to turn this around?

Do you expect the president and his staff are thinking about these things? You do not. You think they’re thinking about the political pickle they’re in, and from all accounts they are.

But the president is an executive, and executives manage. They set a tone, establish accountability, light fires, remind those to whom authority is delegated who’s boss. They set expectations and standards. “If you can’t cut it, you’re out.”

Mr. Obama has never seemed that interested in the management of government. It is completely believable that he read about the VA scandal in the newspapers, where he has learned of other administration scandals. It is believable he had no idea what was going on in a major, problem-plagued agency.

Making sure that things work doesn’t seem to be his conception of his job. Words are his job. He argues for a bill, the bill becomes a program, and someone else will make it work. He talks about health care for three years, it debuts with a terrible crash, and he’s shocked. Why didn’t it work? He told it to! His background was one of some privation, but as an executive he acts like a man who grew up with 10 maids. Let them do it, I’m too busy thinking.

Mr. Obama said, when he first ran for president in 2008, that the VA system was a mess and he’d clean it up. It has gotten worse under his watch. He must be shocked. He told it to get better! He said the words!

And the word is everything. The act, the deed, the follow-through, the making it happen doesn’t seem to loom large on his agenda of concerns. Which makes this progressive era different from those of FDR and LBJ, who appropriately feared scandal and mess and kept a sharp eye on what was happening.

Some of this is surely due to the culture of Washington, where they don’t hold the idea of management in high regard. Managing isn’t interesting, like art or talking. It’s not high-class. It’s what boring people do! Interesting people make speeches and spin the press and smoke out the agenda and flip the narrative.

The interesting people who do that go on to become fabulously wealthy consultants. They’re powerful, part of the Washington establishment. Reporters cultivate them.

Nobody cares what managers know. “I’m a middle-level bureaucrat at the General Services Administration. I take my work seriously. I’m trying to encourage efficiency and make sure the taxpayer’s money isn’t wasted.” “Excuse me, there’s David Plouffe.”

The current lack of serious and effective management damages the progressive project because it presents that project as utterly cynical. It presents progressives as people who don’t really care. If they cared, they’d oversee. They’d make sure it works when the rubber hits the road. They’d make sure the thing they supposedly want to happen (first-rate treatment for vets, for instance) happens.

Instead we have showbiz: the romantic narrative of the knight who wants to help is everything—not actually helping.

Why do Democrats put up with this? It is going to drag them down.

Maya Angelou, RIP

Reaction to Maya Angelou’s death is going to be broader and deeper than people realize. They’ll say she was a great writer, a teller of experience, a witness. All true. But at the end she was a mystic. A friend who saw this interview, with Oprah Winfrey, said: “She was so close to Heaven.”

Angelou said love is an invisible electric current that lights the world and everything in it, and we don’t even notice. She spoke of the shattering yet building moment when she understood for the first time that “God. Loves. Me.” “It still humbles me that this force which made the leaves and fleas and stars and rivers and you—loves me. Me, Maya Angelou. It’s amazing. I can do anything and do it well, any good thing, I can do it.”

She was not embarrassed to talk like this. She wanted you to understand what she knew; she wanted, graciously, to share it, so you’ll know the current too.

I met her once, 15 years ago at a friend’s house, and she was kindly—distanced, observant, but kindly. She kind of invited you into her world, set the subject and the tone and rhythm of the conversation. She had natural stature. She was 6 feet tall and used to people looking up at her.

She turned her life into art. That took not only gifts but guts, and effort. She worked hard in a career of more than half a century. “To work is to pray.” She was probably close to Heaven long before she knew it.

A Masterpiece of a Museum Its focus on the tangible does justice to the memory of September 11.

New York’s new 9/11 museum is a masterpiece. It is the first big thing built to mark that day that is fully worthy of it.

It also struck me as a departure from a growing style among those who create and tend historic sites. That style involves the banishment of meaning—of the particular, of the real and tangible, even to some degree of the human. The plaques on landmarked buildings often tell us of the architectural school under which the edifice was created, but little of the great man or woman born there. A few weeks ago, during a visit to the occasional residence of a former American president, a museum official noted with pride the lack of furniture—no chair the president sat in, or bureau he used. Such personal artifacts, she said, would only distract visitors from pondering the sublime greatness of the president’s achievements. Absence creates a space in which the past can be fully contemplated.

Actually presence is likelier to prompt contemplation. Meaning matters; things that are real and tangible are moving. A single bullet dug from the ground of Gettysburg can tell you as much about what that battle was, the sheer bloody horror of it, as a chapter of a book. People know this naturally, which is why Gettysburg years ago had to stop people from digging around. They were tearing the place apart.

Physical reality is crucial in understanding history. The bullet says the battle was real.

The physicality of things is why people collect autographs: “His hand touched this, his eye considered this document.” It’s why Catholics keep relics of saints, why people collect mementos of all sorts. It’s why it was so thrilling when they found the Titanic in 1985. “It was real, it all happened, there it is. There’s the door of the grand salon.”

The street-level World Trade Center memorial site—the gleaming buildings and reflective pools—seems to me part of the modern trend. There are no heroic statues, nothing to tell us what the firemen did. In the imagination of curators and historical custodians the Higher Blankness gives us space in which to contemplate meaning. Instead we see emptiness and it feels . . . empty, bled of import.

But below ground the new museum is a masterpiece of particularity. Everything in it says the real and physical does matter, and what happened on that day—the facts of it, the meaning of it, who did what and how, who survived and died—matters.

September 11 Memorial Museum

Artifacts in the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York.

It is a true history of the day and its aftermath. You see the ruined firetruck from Ladder Company 3. The helmet of a fireman. The red bandanna that Welles Crowther, a young equities trader, wore when he lost his life saving others in the south tower. There are things picked from the debris like bullets from the field at Gettysburg: a woman’s purse, her eyeglasses, the shoes a man wore as he fled the collapse. The early reports on TV, the “missing” posters, Mass cards. The cross at Ground Zero, the votive candles, the tridents, the slurry wall, the survivors’ staircase, which people in the buildings walked down to safety. And the posters and poems and banners and flags and funeral cards that were suddenly all over the city as New York, in the days and weeks after, began to come back.

What a relief to see history treated as something with meaning.

After I went a friend made a face and asked if it was sad. Amazingly enough, it was not. It was moving, stirring and at moments painful, but not sad. Because you are moved by it, you wind up with a mild case of what Tom Wolfe called information compulsion. You see something—a collection of papers that fluttered from the towers as they burned—and it evokes a world of memory, and you find yourself saying aloud, “I remember,” and, “That day I saw a man covered in ashes waiting patiently on line at my grocery uptown in the 90s—he’d made it all the way up and was standing there in ashes waiting to pay for a bottle of water.”

Because the museum does not dodge reality but shows you what really happened, you wind up reflective. Contemplative in a way that blankness does not engender.

All of it is presented coherently, sensitively, intelligently—nothing vulgar or sentimental, nothing exploitative. The space itself is massive, which underscores the brute massiveness of the event. The lighting is intensely targeted but not harsh, just bright where it needs to be. Someone did beautiful sound design—turn this corner and you hear the EMT operators trying to deal with a flood of unbelievable data, turn that corner and it’s the wailing bagpipes at a fireman’s funeral.

It is all just so real, and done with such exquisite respect for the human beings who were there, and wound up that day enmeshed in history.

The memorial and museum cost about $700 million combined. A press officer notes the nonprofit foundation that oversees both does not receive city, state or federal funding.

The admission price is high, $24 for adults. I mentioned this to a press representative who later noted that family members of those who died, and the families of rescue and recovery workers, are admitted free, and there are free hours for the public Tuesdays from 5 to 8 p.m.

There has been a controversy about the gift shop, which is said to be cheesy, and undignified. The criticism was led by local politicians who didn’t like the T-shirts and jewelry, the NYPD dog vests and little bronze earrings.

I always sit up and listen when New York City pols call something crass, because they’d know, right?

But is the criticism fair? The Oklahoma City Memorial Museum, the Holocaust Museum, Gettysburg and other sites also have gift shops that sell trinkets and books. All are meant to support maintenance and operations, which at the 9/11 site will cost an estimated $60 million a year.

Gift shops also exist because people want something to remind them of the day and what they saw. When they buy something with “9/11″ on it, they are remembering it, and asking you to remember too. And cheesiness is in the eye of the beholder. When I was 10 or so I went to a historical museum and the gift shop sold cheap renderings of the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. I bought them and taped them all over my room. I’d have bought Independence Hall earrings too if I could.

Kids like things that remind them of something important. So do grown-ups. Although I suppose we’re all supposed to think big abstract thoughts and never indulge our need for the tangible, for something you can hold in your hand.

I’m sorry, but stop. You’re in the middle of a masterpiece. The shop helps pay the bills. Leave it alone.

We’re all so used to being disappointed at 9/11-related memorials that we think criticism must be the only legitimate response. At this point it’s a reflex.

But the creators of the 9/11 museum should be deeply proud. Finally someone has created something worthy of the day.


Bring Back the Girls—Quietly America has forgotten how to exercise power without swagger.

At the end of the first Gulf War I saw something that startled me and gave me pause. More than 20 years later I can still see the image in my mind, so vivid was the impression it made.

It was June 8, 1991. America had just won a dazzling victory. We’d won a war in a hundred hours. Saddam Hussein had folded like a cheap suit and slunk out of Kuwait. The troops were coming home and the airwaves were full of joyous reunions. It was good.

Then the startling thing: There was a huge, full-scale military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington—two miles of troops, tanks, helicopters, even missiles. They marched from the Capitol past the White House, where there was a reviewing stand full of dignitaries. An F-117 stealth fighter streamed overhead.

I watched it on the news, from New York. When I saw the tanks, those big heavy bruisers, rolling down the avenue, it looked to me for all the world like a May Day parade in the Brezhnev era—militarist, nationalist, creepy. The journalist Michael Kelly captured some of the feel of it in the afterword of his book, “Martyr’s Day.” The parade was “a splendid evocation of military might and military discipline,” yet he found it “oddly disquieting.”

Tomahawk Cruise Missile

MK 41 (VLS Vertical Launching System) Navy Tomahawk Cruise missile rolling along on flatbed truck during Desert Storm gulf war victory parade on June 8, 1991.

Disquieting was exactly the word. It was all such a rolling brag for a brief engagement we’d won with brains, guts and superior technology. More important, the size and nature of the parade seemed to suggest we were forgetting something: that war is a tragedy. People die in wars, the brave are sacrificed. War is sometimes necessary but always a mark of failure, the last bloody stop after breakdowns of diplomacy and judgment on all sides. War isn’t something you throw a fizzy party for while showing off your shining hardware.

We had discovered how to brag. We had discovered how to beat our breasts with triumphalism and rub the world’s nose in our superior strength. We’d gotten through World Wars I and II barely saying a word. The parade struck me not as a thanksgiving (it’s over, there were limited casualties, we triumphed, thank God) but an assertion: “We’re No. 1.” But—more disquiet—if you’re really No. 1, and know it, you don’t have to say it like this, do you?

The world in the 20th century liked the America that could do the job and the Americans who modestly did it. It wouldn’t feel so warmly about an America that made such a show of its prowess and power.

Since 9/11 and the wars that followed, we have grown confused about power and its proper uses. America is not eager for huge new military-strategic adventures; America knows it itself has a lot of repair to do, especially of its economy. America has not grown isolationist and in fact has never been more global in its daily life—in its commerce and culture, in its very neighborhoods. But it has grown more modest and sober-minded about what it can and should do.

At the same time, America has to stand, always, for what is right and decent in the world, or it will no longer be America. It needs to be able to do things only it can do at the moment, and do them bravely, successfully—and modestly.

Which gets me to my dream for the schoolgirls.

John McCain has it exactly right. (I don’t think I’ve ever written that sentence.) He told CNN that as soon as the U.S. learned that hundreds of children had been kidnapped and stolen away by a rabid band of terrorists in Nigeria, we should have used “every asset that we have—satellite, drones, any capabilities that we had to go after them.” He told the Daily Beast: “I certainly would send in U.S. troops to rescue them, in a New York minute I would, without permission of the host country.” He added, as only Sen. McCain would: “I wouldn’t be waiting for some kind of permission from some guy named Goodluck Jonathan. ” That’s Nigeria’s hapless president.

Mr. McCain said that if he were president he would have moved already, and that is not to be doubted.

There is nothing wrong with taking action—when possible—that is contained, discrete, swift, targeted, humanitarian and, not least, can be carried through successfully. And then shutting up about it. That might remind the world—and ourselves—who we are. And it might have very helpful effects down the road. “If we do that, the Americans may come.” Leave the monsters guessing.

So, my dream: We go in, rescue the kids, get out, go home, and say nothing. Our troops would be happy with that: They like their jobs and like doing good, but the showbiz aspects that sometimes follow their actions only lead to distraction and discord. The White House would have to dummy up too, which would be hard for them. Staffers always want to make a president look good, and Obama staffers seem to think their primary purpose is to aggrandize the president. But there would be no network special with a breathless Brian Williams giving us the tick-tock on how it all went down and how the president kept his cool when all about him others were losing theirs.

What happened would, of course, get around. The world would know in time. But we would say nothing, like dignified people who use their might not for praise or power, but to achieve a measure of decency in the world.

You can’t do this kind of thing every time there is a need. But—if it’s not too late, if it hasn’t been made impossible by the passage of time—you could do it this time.

In the past few weeks, as the story of the kidnapped girls unfolded, the Obama White House reacted as what it is: reflexively political but not really good at reading anything but the feelings of its base. Which, in a narrow way, has proved enough to get them through so far. They probably assume that the American people in general, on hearing of any rescue mission, would say, “Oh no, American involvement in another war—stop, don’t do it!”

But that’s not what the American people would think. They’d just think of the little girls. “Is it possible to go in there with a few hundred troops and save the girls and get out? Then do it!” And when word reached them that America had done it, they’d feel proud—we saved some children from the beasts who’d taken them.

Americans would feel happy about what we’d done, and good about not bragging about it. Actually we would really be proud but not sickly proud, just morally satisfied. Like we used to when our heads were screwed on right.

I really like the part about doing it as swiftly and silently as possible. I like thinking of the world saying: “Who did this? Who saved the little girls?”

And the answer: “It was the Americans. They had no right! But at least they quickly left. And the children were saved. At the end of the day they are a great people.”

Benghazi Isn’t Iran-Contra But the comparison reflects poorly on the Obama administration.

The Benghazi investigation should go forward but with knowledge that it will face heavy partisan and media pushback.

Democrats will argue—they already are—that with the country in crisis the attention of Congress should be turned to addressing the issue that weighs most on the public mind: a bad economy with the very top flourishing while the middle is stuck, stressed and sinking.

That will not be a wholly effective line for Democrats. Their and the president’s inability to work legislatively with Republicans the past 5½ years has left the American people understanding that nothing’s going to get done in the immediate future anyway. Benghazi isn’t distracting Congress because they’re not doing anything.

The president, detached and defeatist when he isn’t in your face and triumphalist, let David Remnick, in the New Yorker interview people keep going back to as the second term’s Rosetta stone, know that he himself does not expect any major legislation, with the possible exception of immigration, to get done.

The more effective pushback will come from Big Media. Network leaders, producers and newspaper editors did not go after the story when the first serious questions began to bubble up. Afterward they dismissed the questions as old news. Now they are defensive and resentful. They are not going to help Republican investigators do the job they themselves should have done. (If they’d done it there might be no need for another investigation, because people might feel satisfied they know the essential facts.) Any proof of a Democratic coverup will have the appearance of indicting the media, too.

Secretary of State George Shultz

Secretary of State George Shultz testifying at a Senate Iran-Contra hearing in 1987.

There is a threat, too, from the Republicans themselves. They’re happy to hold hearings, as parties out of power are, but members frequently don’t prepare, dig into the material, know what to look for. Sometimes they’re leaden: When Hillary Clinton famously asked what difference does it make, none of them had a reply. Sometimes they just compete with each other for Most Fiery Moment, which might get them a six minute pop on “Hannity.” If they act unseriously and cynically, the American people, to the extent they’re watching, will turn off. In the end that would produce a GOP humiliation. More importantly, what happened at Benghazi wouldn’t be found out.

We are about to find out if Republican congressmen can be mature.

The reasons Benghazi is important do not have to be rehearsed here. An American outpost, virtually undefended, was attacked by armed and organized al Qaeda-associated militants on the anniversary of 9/11 and four were left dead, including the U.S. ambassador. It happened eight weeks before the 2012 presidential election. From day one White House management and leadership focused on spin and an apparent fiction. Did they deliberately mislead and misdirect? Why was there no military response? Who is responsible?

A Democratic former senator noted to me a few months ago that veterans and their families feel a simmering sense of betrayal. They deserve to know what happened and why.

Beyond that, history needs to be told, by which I mean future White Houses need to be told, what really happened. People in politics, of whatever party or persuasion, will need to understand that the words, “Don’t—that’s Benghazi” mean “Don’t lie and mislead, it will hurt us.” The Common Core people say our young are falling behind in math and science, and they are, but we’re not exactly raising generations of moral and ethical deep thinkers, either. Those who are being trained up with a sense of right and wrong aren’t likely to lead lives whose main purpose is to get a good table at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. People need to be told what happened because lessons need to be heard and internalized.

Since the scandal began, media movers, in an attempt to diminish it as a story and exculpate themselves for not covering it, have begun to say, “Benghazi is no Iran-Contra!”

They are right, but in ways they do not understand.

Iran-Contra was a real scandal and an embarrassment to the U.S. government. In the early 1980s the Reagan White House was worried about the fate of a handful of American hostages being held by Hezbollah, which had snatched each off the streets of Beirut. The president was especially worried about CIA station chief William Buckley, who was being tortured.

Suddenly in 1985 word reached the administration of a possible opening, a group of so-called Iranian moderates who might be willing to pressure Hezbollah for the hostages’ release. Meetings were authorized. It turned out the Iranian group wanted something in return: the U.S. to permit Israel to sell them antitank missiles to use against Iraq. The U.S. would replenish the Israeli stock.

Reagan unwisely agreed. His secretary of state, George Shultz, heard about the scheme, opposed it, and told Reagan that while it might not technically amount to an arms-for-hostages deal, it would look like one and open the president to charges he broke the law.

Reagan should have pulled the plug, but some hostages were slowly released, and he allowed the scheme to continue.

The story broke in a Mideast newspaper. The administration denied it—all of it. Reporters began to dig.

It was a big enough scandal on its own, but then came word that profits from the arms sales had been illegally funneled to the Nicaraguan Contras, who were fighting the communist Sandinista government.

The attorney general, Ed Meese, launched a review of the affair. It was a real investigation, and he went public with his findings. The national security adviser who oversaw the operation had left, but his replacement resigned and his deputy was fired.

The president delivered a national address. Two congressional committees launched investigations. Networks covered the hearings live. Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post said it was the most fun he’d had since Watergate.

Reagan waived executive privilege so his aides would testify. He announced a special commission to investigate everything. There was a full housecleaning. Colin Powell was brought in to run the National Security Council, and Mr. Shultz given full authority for all dealings with Iran. Ultimately Reagan dumped his chief of staff.

The Iran-Contra affair did not spring from low motives. There was no hope of partisan gain, it wasn’t a political play.

All involved were trying—sometimes stupidly, almost childishly—to save lives, and perhaps establish a new opening with Iran. They had good reasons, but the actions were bad, and everyone involved paid a price.

Compare that with how the Obama White House has handled Benghazi. It’s all been spin, close ranks, point fingers, obfuscate, withhold documents, accuse your accusers of base motives. Nobody in the administration has paid a price.

The reporter Bob Timberg, who along with the late Michael Kelly toughly covered Iran-Contra for the Baltimore Sun, suggests the press had its own biases. “At a certain point, though, I realized that the comparison to Watergate . . . didn’t hold up when looked at in light of the motives,” he writes in his new memoir, “Blue-Eyed Boy.”

No, Benghazi was no Iran-Contra, in terms of the nature of the crime or the handling of it.

Dude, that was, like, almost 30 years ago. You can look it up.

Dude, that’s how patriots, not punks, deal with scandals.

The Trouble With Common Core

George Will made an incisive and spirited case against the Common Core on Tuesday’s “Special Report With Bret Baier. Earlier in the broadcast Michelle Rhee, whose efforts in education have earned her deserved admiration, was invited on to make the case for Common Core. She reverted to the gobbledygook language that educators too often use, and failed to make a persuasive case that the Core is good for public-school students, and will help them, and our country, in the long run.

My conversations with several Core proponents over the past few weeks leave me with the sense they fell in love with an abstraction and gave barely a thought to implementation. But implementation—how a thing is done day by day in the real world—is everything. There is a problem, for instance, with a thing called “ObamaCare.” That law exists because the people who pushed for it fell in love with an abstract notion and gave not a thought to what the law would actually do and how it would work.

The educationalists wanted to impose (they don’t like that word; they prefer “offer” or “suggest”) more rigorous and realistic standards, and establish higher expectations as to what children can be expected to have learned by the time they leave the public schools. They seem to have thought they could wave a magic wand and make that happen. But life isn’t lived in some abstract universe; it’s lived on the ground, in this case with harried parents trying, to the degree they can or are willing, to help the kids with homework and study for tests. The test questions that have come out are nonsensical and impenetrable, promise to get worse, and for those reasons are demoralizing. Louis CK was right “Late Show With David Letterman,” when he spoofed the math problems offered on his daughters’ tests: “Bill has three goldfish. He buys two more. How many dogs live in London?”

There sure is a lot of money floating around. Who is watching how those who’ve contracted to do Common Core-related work are doing their jobs?

George Will focused on the higher, substantive meaning and implications of the Core, but the effort has also been psychologically and politically inept. Proponents are now talking about problems with the rollout. Well, yes, and where have we heard that before? One gets the impression they didn’t think this through, that they held symposia and declared the need, with charts and bullet points, for something to be done—and something must be done, because American public education is falling behind the world—and then left it to somebody, or 10,000 somebodies, to make it all work.

The people who developed and created Common Core need to look now at themselves. Who is responsible for the nonsensical test questions? Who oversees the test makers? Do the questions themselves reflect the guidance given to teachers—i.e., was the teaching itself nonsensical? How was implementation of the overall scheme supposed to work? Who decided the way to take on critics was to denigrate parents, who supposedly don’t want their little darlings to be revealed as non-geniuses, and children, who supposedly don’t want to learn anything? Who among these serious people chose sarcasm as a strategy? Who decided the high-class pushback against the pushback should be defensive and dismissive? Did anyone bother to get actual parents in on the planning and development? Were women there, and mothers? Maybe parents with kids in the public school system? Who even picked the ugly name—Common Core sounds common, except to the extent to which it sounds Soviet. Maybe it was the people who dreamed up the phrase “homeland security.”

The irony is that Core proponents’ overall objective—to get schools teaching more necessary and important things, and to encourage intellectual coherence in what is taught—is not bad, but good. Why they thought the answer was federal, I mean national, and not local is beyond me. Since patronizing people you disagree with is all the rage, I’ll have a go. The Common Core establishment appears to be largely led by people who are well-educated, well-meaning, accomplished and affluent, and who earnestly desire to help those in less fortunate circumstances, but who simply don’t know enough about normal people—how they live, how they think—to have made a success of it. Also they don’t seem to know that intelligent Americans, exactly the kind who quickly become aware of and respond to new federal schemes—sorry, I meant national ones—have become very, very wary of Washington, and the dreams of its eggheads. How they could have missed that is also beyond me.

© 2000-2014, Peggy Noonan, all rights reserved