The State of the Union Is Missing America loses something worthwhile as Trump and Pelosi cast aside another traditional norm.

Donald Trump’s signature, which he enjoys displaying after signing bills and executive orders, is unusually big, sharp and jagged. It’s like the lines a seismograph makes during an earthquake, or what a polygraph shows when you’re telling a whopper. Lately it’s looking bigger and sharper.

He’s in a crisis he summoned. His numbers are down. He’s dug himself in a hole. His foes, delighted at his struggle, refuse to help him get out—even as they claim concern that employees are going without pay and air-traffic controllers are calling in sick, even when the longer the shutdown, the likelier something really bad will happen.

The State of the Union address has been sacrificed. It is fair that the president not give the address—and that the House speaker not leave Washington, even to visit troops—during a shutdown in which others, not they, suffer. But it would have been much better if both sides had met and issued a statement: “We acknowledge that a shutdown is always the result of failure, and while it continues the president and the Congress will forgo benefits of office. We will continue to talk and attempt to end the impasse. As soon as we do, this important address will take place.”

President Harry S Truman
President Harry S Truman delivers a State of the Union address

They can’t say that because they’re not talking. Which is amazing in itself, and a scandal.

Nancy Pelosi’s original excuse for disinviting Mr. Trump, security concerns, was lame and disingenuous, and being obviously those things it was also aggressive.

And all because she didn’t want to sit behind him and stare at his hair. She didn’t want to sit through an hour of listening to him while looking at the back of his head, which is what speakers do. If the speech had taken place as usual, Mr. Trump, being Mr. Trump, likely would have used the moment to put her on the spot—making some plea for agreement, having his Republicans jump to their feet in applause, turning around, pausing, daring her not to nod to his good-faith idea.

That would have been rude. He is rude. And now he has been punished. No speech! I’m not sure we fully appreciate that for a speaker of the House to tell a president of the United States that he is not welcome to make a State of the Union address is a shocking violation of norms. And it will lead to nothing good. A new precedent will have been set: You can disinvite a president if you hate him. And the future won’t be short of hate.

I’m hearing a lot of “good riddance” about the speech, but that’s shortsighted and historically ignorant. Yes, the event has devolved into kabuki in which stupid applause lines prompt rote cheering. Yes, it’s too often a laundry list. The language has become phony as it attempts to be elevated: “Let us follow those better angels.” My urging to speech-givers has been to hold the let-us. Plain, straight and honest is the way to go, and if you have a little wit that won’t hurt either.

What’s being overlooked is that the speech has a high policy purpose. It’s not a celebration of the imperial presidency. In fact, it puts the president on the spot. The Founders were not stupid and knew what they were doing when, in the Constitution, they instructed the chief executive to report to Congress on the condition the country is in.

The speech is a public acknowledgment that America is both a democracy and a republic. Somehow we’re never reminded. But that’s the chief executive going down the street to Congress’s house, asking to enter, and trying his best to persuade that coequal branch as the judiciary looks on.

The fact of the speech forces a White House to concentrate on what it thinks. Suddenly it must determine and put into words its priorities for the coming year. Suddenly it has a deadline. Suddenly it has to take its own sentiments seriously. The speech forces the president to decide, to focus, and not to take shelter in the day-to-day and whatever crisis just came over the transom.

The president is forced to take stock. He must state with at least some measure of credibility that “the State of the Union is . . .” Is what?

Harry Truman in 1949 was plain, unadorned: The state of the union is “good.” Gerald Ford in 1975 was blunt to the point of downcast: “The State of the Union is not good”—too many people out of work, inflation too high. Ronald Reagan in 1985 congratulated the American people for producing “a nation renewed, stronger, freer, and more secure than before.” George H.W. Bush in 1992 didn’t characterize the historical era but an event: “I am not sure we’ve absorbed the full impact, the full import of what happened. But communism died this year. . . . By the grace of God, America won the Cold War.” Woodrow Wilson in December 1913: “The country, I am thankful to say, is at peace with all the world.” For Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1945, the subject was the war: “Everything we are and have is at stake. Everything we are, and have, will be given.”

It matters what they say! Not only to the moment but to history.

As to its other purposes, the speech is a moment of enacted majesty. Not real majesty—real majesty would be Jackie Kennedy walking behind the caisson and behind her a street full of kings. But it’s a night when our democracy struts its stuff. The president, Congress, the Supreme Court, the cabinet, the diplomatic corps, the military, the press in the gallery, all arrayed. The heroes in the balcony, reminding us not of our politics but of our humanity, of the fact that almost against the odds America keeps producing spectacular individuals. All are there acting out comity, dignity, stature. I don’t really care if they feel these things. No one cares. We just want them to show it because children are watching, or at least taking a look as they pass a screen, and learning how adults in public act.

My friend Jeremy Shane, who worked in the George H.W. Bush administration, speaks of the thrill of the door’s opening. “It was hard not to get goose bumps when the sergeant-at-arms bangs on the floor and announces, ‘Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!’ ” And modest Landon Parvin, one of the great speechwriters of our era, remembers watching the speech as a child. “When I was growing up, State of the Unions were special occasions, like the queen opening Parliament and giving her speech. They were, in effect, occasions of state.”

All this has value. A fracturing nation cannot afford to so blithely cast aside another of its traditions.

Everyone involved should have shown forbearance and courtesy, a greater seriousness about a worthy tradition as it was delayed but not canceled, knowing you maintain form because you know democracies are in some part held together by it.

The speaker has shamed herself by not negotiating to end the problem that caused the postponement.

The president wouldn’t take a deal; now they won’t make a deal. We live through the chaos that is, always, his signature move.

The Odd Way We Announce for President Now The challenge, pressure and opportunity of being a female candidate in 2020.

We are American politicians. We are running for president. We are dancing and drinking beer. We are on a road trip, dilating on our mind-loops, hoping to make new friends. We are singing “One Nation Under a Groove.” We are announcing we’re exploring a run on Colbert as we giggle and hold his hand, as if we were announcing stardom in a new sitcom. And maybe we are. We have absorbed the lesson of the Trump era: You can do anything. And before this is over, you will. Beto O’Rourke live-streamed a dental visit as he queried his hygienist about life in her border town. His teeth are large, white and gleaming. This is not a kid who was ever told there’s no milk in the house. He is a candidate of hope. My hope is he’s too young to need regular colonoscopies.

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris
Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris

Why do they do this? Because they know a candidate now is a mood. Not a thought, a stand or a statement, but a mood.

They do this because they want to seem unpretentious, relatable. “I’m just like you.”

But here is our secret: We would like someone better than us.

As they demystify themselves they further demystify the office they seek. If they win it they will have made their life harder by lowering their own stature. Familiarity breeds contempt.

Americans who’ve experienced some history, and have a sense of the trouble America is in, are jarred by this casual puerility.

How I wish they’d stop. I wish the next candidate to announce would be like . . . Margaret Chase Smith. Or Adlai Stevenson. Modest, adult, not exhibitionistic. He or she would make a sober, serious speech about the problems of our time. There would be no faint, unconscious air of “I know you’re stupid and shallow and I will now make believe I am your friend.”

But that is not my subject, which is the women running for president. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard and Kirsten Gillibrand have made it clear they’re in, and more will likely come.

Do they face double or different standards because they are women? Will they be subject to special and unique pressures?

Yes they do, and yes they will.

It is harder to be a public woman in America than a public man, and harder to be a female candidate. The challenges they face are practical, emotional, even existential. Practical: No one gets a lot of sleep on the trail, but a woman has to get up an hour earlier for makeup, hair, to choose what to wear and get it together. If she doesn’t, they’ll say she looks bad. Emotional: We are a crueler country every year, thanks in part to the internet, where women are the objects not of more hate but of sicker hate—brute, sexual, anonymous. Existential: people often experience what a woman says and what a man says differently. They just do.

Female candidates are also battered by professional consultants who claim to understand voters, and who tell them to be strong but approachable, warm but steely, mom but dad, young and bouncy but wise and grave. These operatives are the swarming locusts of politics, eating all in their path. They never say, “Let’s just settle down and be mature, as the moment seems to demand it.” Male candidates face this too, but for women it is more so—more nervous and defensive.

What do you do about such challenges? You don’t claim victimhood. You don’t demand special treatment. You overcome them.

There are some new dynamics this year. For 30 years Hillary Clinton sucked up all the oxygen. She was The Woman, the next in line, and in the end she was The Official Victim of Sexism, or so she said. But this year there are a lot of women running, with different backgrounds, histories and styles. They don’t have her baggage.

Democratic women are now out from under not a male shadow or a cultural shadow but Hillary’s shadow. The double standard of old may be less relevant this cycle. In fact, reporters may be too timid, holding back their punches in fear of Twitter mobs.

Hillary put the issue of “likability” and “relatability” forward as a subject of national debate. But likability is not a sexist slight. “It’s a standard for all candidates, like ‘charisma’ or ‘gravitas,’ ” says my friend Alessandra Stanley. For years pundits have asked, when only men were running, which candidate you’d want to have a beer with.

There are a lot of male candidates with likability problems. Some, such as Andrew Cuomo, a three-term governor of a large state, are so unlikable they aren’t even mentioned as contenders.

As for appearance, Ms. Stanley says, “It’s true that women draw comment for what they wear far more than men do, but men have their own problems. Women get attacked if they look too frumpy, and men get attacked if they look too vain. Let’s not forget John Edwards and his haircut and videographer.” If Joe Biden runs we’ll hear about tanning beds and teeth whiteners. If Sen. Sherrod Brown runs we’ll joke about his hair.

As for makeup, it is a decision, not a burden. We’re lucky we can be made to look better than men, poor dears. Female candidates should play it as they please.

Ms. Warren doesn’t seem to pay a lot of attention to such things and looks fine. Ms. Harris, who does, and seems to enjoy her beauty, also looks fine. Angela Merkel has no apparent physical vanity, which seems to have been OK with Germany. Golda Meir gave not a thought to how she looked, which was fine with Israel. Theresa May seems eager to be appropriate, no more. Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, worked it. She got that extra hour in the morning by having only coffee and vitamins for breakfast. She thought a leader should be well turned out and took enjoyment in being handsomely put together—full makeup, hair done, nice suit or dress, heels. “She thought and said that women had to be twice as good as men—and I believe that looking good was part of that ‘twice,’ ” her adviser and speechwriter John O’Sullivan tells me.

And there was something else, an element of past repression. Mr. O’Sullivan says Thatcher grew up near a Catholic church and, as a Methodist child, used to see the girls her age making their first Holy Communion in white dresses and bright ribbons. “If you wore a ribboned dress,” Thatcher wrote in her memoirs, “an older chapel-goer would shake his head and warn against the ‘first step to Rome.’ ” She longed for pretty things and as an adult wore them.

That’s sweet, isn’t it? She wore perfume too. She enjoyed being a girl.

I close with a note from a friend, a great liberal of many years. “The more masculine qualities that a woman has who’s running for president, the better off she is. Margaret Thatcher had all the forceful qualities that one associates with male politicians, and therefore was considered not so different from a man. She was held to the same standards as male politicians and was not found wanting.”

That may still be the ticket: Honestly feminine, however that looks, and as forceful as—and more serious than—the boys.

End This Stupid Shutdown Trump is unserious, but so are Schumer and Pelosi. Two decades of cynical game-playing are enough.

After 20 years of argument we all kind of know everything about illegal immigration, don’t we? And in a funny way most of us agree on the essentials.

America is for legal immigration, always has been. It is against illegal immigration.

Whether you see what’s happening on the border as a genuine crisis or merely a manufactured one, we agree there’s a problem. Hundreds of thousands of people a year are trying to enter America illegally. We need to make the situation more secure and orderly, less cruel.

Both sides agree the problem has a humanitarian dimension. Democrats speak quickly of women and children being divided and abused once they make it to the border. This is a real problem. Republicans speak of women and children being abused on the way to it. That’s a problem too. There’s a lot of suffering going on.

Both sides agree at least formally that a sovereign nation has a right to have borders, even a responsibility to have them. Borders say here’s where our land stops and yours begins. They say this is where your laws pertain, this is where ours do.

We are nothing without the rule of law. It is what allows America to operate each day.

President Donald J. Trump
President Trump inspects border-wall prototypes in San Diego, March 13, 2018.

Almost everyone would agree we have a right to determine the rules by which legal entry is attained. Most Americans would agree it is desirable to set those rules according to the nation’s needs. America is beginning to experience a shortage of registered nurses. Have you noticed? You will. Wouldn’t it be good to address the shortfall through immigration policy, inviting nurses from other countries to become legal residents and citizens? My people, from Ireland, were welcomed because the dynamic America of 1900 needed laborers and domestic workers. That, luckily, is what my people were. Two generations later I worked for an American president. What a miracle this place is. Let’s keep that up, the miracle part.

Those of us who are not politicians agree that neither party has really wanted to solve the problem. Both played it for their own gain, cynically, as if they weren’t even invested in this place. They should be ashamed.

It was not in the interests of the Republican Party to address the border problem because that might leave them open to charges they were driven by questions of race and color. Also their major donors didn’t mind illegal immigration, which was good for business. It’s always convenient when you see things the donors’ way! The affluent and powerful in America enjoy feeling liberal and are uninterested in how poor Americans view chaos (as a threat—America is all they have; they don’t have two passports and a share on a plane) and jobs lost to cheaper labor.

Democrats never intended to control the border because they think doing nothing marks them as the nonracist party, the compassionate, generous party that Hispanics will see as home. They would reap the electoral rewards in a demographically changing country. They will own the future! Their big donors too opposed border strictness. They don’t think about security a lot, even after 9/11. I think it was Murray Kempton who said Republicans are always hearing the creak of the door at night. It’s true. Democrats are less anxious about security. It’s fair to point out they tend to be more affluent and have the protections money can buy. Their fearlessness is not bravery but obliviousness. They off-load anxiety onto Republicans, who are always mysteriously eager to take it up.

I’ll throw in something else I think we agree on. Governing by shutdown is ignorant, cowardly and destructive. It is unjust to the innocent, who are forced to deal with reduced services, closed agencies and missed paychecks. It’s dangerous: Something bad will happen with air security, food inspection—something. It’s demoralizing: It makes America look incompetent in the world, unstable, like an empty adversary and incapable friend. It harms the democratic spirit because it so vividly tells Americans—rubs their faces in it—that they’re pawns in a game as both parties pursue their selfish ends.

And here is the part we won’t all agree on:

The president at the center of this drama is an unserious man. He is only episodically sincere and has no observable tropism toward truthfulness. He didn’t get a wall in two years with a Republican Congress and is now in a fix. He is handling himself as he does, with bluster and aggression, without subtlety or winning ways. He likes disorder.

But the game didn’t start with Donald Trump. Two decades of cynical, game-playing failure produced him.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have been just as unserious. Brinkmanship and insults—“malice and misinformation,” “soap opera,” “tinkle contest,” “as if manhood could ever be associated with him.” They are playing to their new, rising base and smirking slyly as the bear ties himself in knots. They demanded time to rebut the president immediately after his Oval Office speech. By tradition the networks offer response time after the State of the Union, not after every presidential address. This is because of a certain deference to the office. You allow a president—even if you hate him—to speak in the clear. He’s trying to lead; you let what he says settle in. Then the next day you formally hand him his head. If every presidential address is followed now by swift and furious rebuttal, we’ll never achieve any rough unity again.

In the end Mr. Schumer and Mrs. Pelosi’s speech was no more a success than the president’s: it broke no new ground, didn’t even try to persuade. Trevor Noah caught the mood: They looked as if the hostess at IHOP just told them there’s no senior discount.

Mr. Schumer and Mrs. Pelosi should stop. They should end the drama.

Who cares if it’s a wall, a fence, a bulwark, a barrier, smart tech, increased personnel? Get it done. Climb down. Make a deal.

Who cares how both sides spin the outcome, claim bragging rights, issue the cleverest taunt?

Just solve it. It’s been 20 years.

They should trade better border security for a deal that protects the Dreamers, who were brought here illegally as children. This would actually be good for the country. Not to be irrelevant, just thought I’d note it.

All of Mr. Trump’s foes think they do what they do because of him. Extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary measures. They become like him to fight him.

But some day Donald Trump will be gone. What will we have then? His tormentors think we’ll go back to normal. We won’t, in part because of how they acted in opposition. They think everyone will revert to courtesies, but they will have killed the old ways.

Mr. Trump never had the power to lower everything. He had the power to lower himself. Everything could be lowered only if he and his supporters plus his opponents decided “everyone into the pool.”

Stop this. It’s embarrassing. And it’s wrong. Make a deal.

Baby, There’s a Chilling Effect Outside Political correctness could destroy the arts and entertainment. Only the left can defeat it.

My greatest hope for 2019 is cultural. It is that the left will rise and do what only it can do—strike a blow against political correctness in the arts and entertainment. All artists are meant to be free and daring. Their job, whether in drama, comedy or music, is to approach the truth—to apprehend it, get their hands on it and hold it up for a moment for everyone to see. That’s a big job, a great one, and you can do it only if you’re brave. Pope John Paul II, in his 1999 Letter to Artists, noted something I have witnessed: The artist faces a constant sense of defeat. You’re working, you’re trying, but it’s never as good as you wanted, as you dreamed. Even your most successful work only comes close. Artists are looking for “the hidden meaning of things.” Their “intuitions” spring from their souls. There is an “unbridgeable gap” between what they produce and “the dazzling perfection” of what they glimpsed in the creative moment. They forge on anyway.

From the divine to the slightly ridiculous, in one area, music:

Neptune’s Daughter
Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban in the film, “Neptune’s Daughter,” 1949.

At happy gatherings the past two weeks, talk turned to the controversy over Frank Loesser’s 1944 holiday classic, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” You know the argument. The song should be pulled from playlists and effectively banned because its lyrics, on close inspection, are somewhat rapey. It’s a song about sexual assault; there’s a clear power imbalance. This argument comes from young writers and activists of the #MeToo movement. Actually, the man in the song hopes to seduce, not rape; the song is flirty and humorous, a spoof of the endless drama between men and women.

From every conversation I witnessed liberal opinion is very much against banning the song, as is conservative opinion.

But companies hate controversy. Radio stations don’t want petitions at Christmastime, no one wants trouble. We’ll be hearing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” less as the years go by. It only takes a few highly focused idiots to kill a song.

But I want to mention a masterpiece, Randy Newman’s album “Good Old Boys,” released to critical acclaim in 1974. I listened to it over the holidays. There’s so much in it I love, such as “Marie,” one of the greatest love songs of the latter half of the 20th century. A working-class man who works in a factory comes home drunk and tries to tell his wife, in plain words, that he loves her. “You looked like a princess the night we met / With your hair piled up high / I will never forget.” He’s not eloquent or clever, but he reaches. “You’re the song / That the trees sing when the wind blows / You’re a flower, you’re a river, you’re a rainbow.” He tells her the simple truth: “Sometimes I’m crazy / But I guess you know / I’m weak and I’m lazy / And I’ve hurt you so / And I don’t listen to a word you say / When you’re in trouble I turn away / But I love you, I loved you, the first time I saw you / And I always will love you Marie.” The orchestration is rich and cinematic, and when you realize it’s a slow waltz, and imagine that, tears fill your eyes.

But it’s also a highly political album, and sharply pointed. It is an attempt to capture the cultural divide that existed even then in America—an album about the deplorables before the term was invented. In “Rednecks” the lyrics are rough. The factory worker had just watched Georgia’s segregationist governor being baited on a talk show. “Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show / With some smart-ass New York Jew / And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox / And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too / Well he may be a fool but he’s our fool / If they think they’re better than him they’re wrong.” The factory worker acknowledges every stereotype of white Southerners—people like him—while employing the ugliest racial epithet. He accuses the North of hypocrisy: It claims to be liberal but its special brand of real estate racism—putting black men “in a cage”—is worse.

It is rough art, it is bitter, it sees splits that are with us still.

And I realized as I listened: This album could never be made now. Mr. Newman would be attacked on social media, his label boycotted. He’d be accused of cultural appropriation, ethnic condescension, racial insensitivity. They would ban this.

And yet it is a masterpiece. And 45 years ago, in a less enlightened age, we could tolerate it, withstand it, even praise it.

What a loss if it didn’t exist.

Political correctness is the enemy of art. Self-censorship is a killer of art. Censorship applied from outside, through organized pressure, is an assassination of art.

We have seen the political correctness of the social-justice warriors sweep the universities, hounding out those who would speak from an incorrect perspective, decreeing new rules of language and living. They do not understand that when you tell people, especially Americans, what they can and cannot say, can and cannot think, they don’t stop saying and thinking. They go underground, sometimes to the depths. And it is dark down there.

Conservatives have long decried political correctness. The past 30 years they’ve provided the intellectual muscle against censorship.

But an end to political correctness in the arts and entertainment cannot come from the right. It can come only from the left. All the organs of entertainment and art in America, from Broadway to Hollywood, through Netflix , the museums and onward, are entities of the cultural left. They are run and populated by the cultural left.

They have the pertinent power. When conservatives write or speak against limits on free speech, what they say is heard by the left as mere reaction, a cover for intolerance, and so dismissed.

The left will listen only to entities of the left who say: Enough. Art needs air, and that air is freedom.

The turnaround might begin—just one idea—when some powerful cultural entity produces a documentary featuring great figures of entertainment and the arts saying how they feel about limits to artistic expression. What their personal experience with political correctness is, how it has limited what they do, what the implications are. It would require significant cultural figures who are not identified with the right to speak their peace.

And here is the great thing. Most of them do hate it. The producers and network chiefs, the comics, writers and directors—so many of them hate the air of inhibition under which they operate. They hate it with a lovely bitterness, and it is lovely because it is earned. They’ve all been stopped from at least one artistic act by the forces of censorship, in the same way that there is hardly an American the past quarter-century who hasn’t been shamed for saying, doing or thinking the wrong thing.

What I hope for this year is a break in the ice.

Artists of America, be brave. It is in your nature. Save our art and entertainment, past and present.

Trump Insiders, Come Out of the Shadows America needs candor. The president’s supporters won’t be convinced by anonymous testimony.

My most central hopes for 2019 involve, as yours likely do, peace at home and abroad. But I also hope very particularly for personal testimony from those who know whereof they speak. I want those who have worked with President Trump to tell us what it is like in this White House. And I want them to put their name on it.

How does he really operate each day? What do you see as you witness him doing his job?

The press reports he watches television for hours, is inattentive to briefings, doesn’t read, rants, rages, nurses petty resentments, doesn’t listen to those with expertise, doesn’t understand the constitutional limits on his office, is increasingly alone and paranoid. Are these things true?

What else is true? Would you trust him to handle a situation in which sound and immediate decisions had to be made in a clock-ticking crisis? Would you trust him to lead honestly and credibly through a crisis?

Lurking in the shadows
President Donald J. Trump

Two years is enough time to know. It is enough time to have observed and come to conclusions. It’s enough time to describe with confidence how things really are.

Candor couldn’t be more important than now and in the coming year, which will be politically fraught.

Next week Democrats take control of the House. They will certainly launch new investigations, and impeachment will become more prominent in the national discussion. Special counsel Robert Mueller will at some point report his findings to the Justice Department. Whatever his report contains it will not be compliments, and may include offenses Democrats and others judge impeachable. Tensions will be high and nonstop.

And that’s just one area of life, the president and Congress. Add a deeply unpredictable world and surprise events. Things aren’t going to get calmer, more stable, more placid and predictable in the coming year. Nor will the president.

Why do those who have worked with Mr. Trump so rarely if ever speak in any depth, in public, of their experience? Courtesy—it is traditional to serve quietly and leave discreetly. Fear—once you speak critically of a president, you’re a target. And maybe some aren’t sure what to think. A lot of people in the White House have never worked in one before. It takes time to figure out the difference between the weird and disturbing and the merely idiosyncratic. But again, two years—by now you should know.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said a great deal in his resignation letter, but between the lines. He strongly believes “our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.” We need to treat our allies with “respect.” We must be “clear-eyed” about strategic competitors such as China and Russia. Mr. Mattis’s own views are “informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.” “Because you have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”

He was saying the president does not treat allies and alliances with respect, is inexperienced, is not clear-eyed regarding some strategic threats. There was not a word of praise for the president, nor an expression of personal gratitude. Instead, “I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.”

For this oblique criticism, marked more by what was unsaid than what was said, Mr. Mattis was told to clean out his desk and leave before he had planned.

It was a good letter. But one letter isn’t enough.

The Trump supporters I know are motivated by patriotism, not spleen, bigotry or bitterness. They are so loyal to their man in part because they see all the forces arrayed against him, especially in the media. They believe, legitimately, that he gets only grudging credit for his accomplishments. And they have told themselves a story about the brave if unlikely outsider who sacrificed his own comfort to upend a corrupt system and protect the interests of the common man.

They will never believe the mainstream media when they say this presidency is unstable, dangerous, a threat.

Journalists are sometimes puzzled by this. After all, their books and articles are full of unsparing facts and observations about the president—and those quotes came from White House staffers and other administration officials. But those officials speak not for attribution. They are not named. Trump supporters will not believe anyone who won’t put his name on it, and whose motives are unclear.

But they will believe the generals. They will believe those who’ve worked in the administration in substantial positions and who can define what isn’t working and what the chaos means—with examples. They will believe serious people who gave an inexperienced president a chance, who joined his administration when others were reluctant, who put their careers on the line and tried to help the country.

They will believe those whose motives are clear and constructive.

They won’t believe someone like Omarosa, who wrote a book when she left the White House calling the president a cynic, a “racist, misogynist, and bigot.” They’d see her as a scatty show-business creature who got fired and is hitting back.

They won’t believe the words of “Anonymous,” author of the September New York Times op-ed that became a sensation. “The president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic,” that person wrote. “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality.” The president’s impulses are “generally . . . anti-democratic.” Meetings with him “veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions.” His behavior is “erratic” and is regularly thwarted by “unsung heroes” of the internal resistance.

This electrified the media and reinforced the views of Trump foes, but to my observation left Trump supporters coolly unimpressed. Unsung heroes? Who brokered this, a book agent? Anyone can protect his post-White House reputation with an anonymous hit piece, anyone can rationalize staying in a cushy job. Anyone can shore up his ideological bona fides so he’s not shunned later on by the people who matter to him. The piece seemed written not to expose a problem but to cover the tracks of a self-valorizing staffer who wants both to enjoy the White House and not be tainted by it. It was a career move, not a patriotic one.

Trump supporters will not believe the testimony of unnamed people with unknown motives. They will believe only the testimony of serious people who are obviously patriots.

Turnover has been high in this administration. Many have been fired or resigned. They should tell us what they know.

Those who did that would certainly become a target of the president’s operatives. They might for a time become figures of obloquy. They’d be called rats.

But if you do see this president as ultimately dangerous, you have a responsibility to say it.

We need some noble rats.

May they come forward, speak softly, and make their motives clear.

Churchill’s Adversaries Weren’t His Enemies The great man had his flaws, but he understood that people are not only political beings.

I didn’t intend to write on Andrew Roberts’s biography of Winston Churchill, because so many smart people have written on it so well. Also, I don’t belong to the Churchill cult. He was a great man, arguably the greatest of the 20th century, and right on the central question of his age, the meaning of Hitler. He had both political and literary genius, the first Western political figure of whom that could be said since Lincoln. He was brave and he was a visionary; he understood and wrote about the implications of splitting the atom long before it was split. He was also a person of titanic self-regard driven by a sense of destiny that occasionally verged on the half-mad. He made blunders for which others suffered and forgave himself too quickly and too much. And he was bloody-minded. “I love this war,” he confided to a friend at the height of World War I, when he was first lord of the admiralty. “I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment—and yet—I can’t help it—I enjoy every second of it.”

He did. War was opportunity. He didn’t think the lights were going out all over Europe, he thought the lights were about to shine brightly on his name.

And yet. What a warm and splendid book Mr. Roberts’s biography is. It is intelligent and fluid; he doesn’t lard things up to show you the depth of his research, but tells you what is important, with verve and sympathy. As you read you trust his judgment.

Winston Churchill & Abraham Lincoln
Winston Churchill & Abraham Lincoln

It reminds me what a moving life Churchill’s was, and what a struggle. His father, who treated him as an afterthought, did not live long enough to admire him; his mother became fully invested in him only once she understood he was a winner and would reflect well on her. His response to their neglect was a love that looks very much like gallantry.

Mr. Roberts gives fresh attention to the meaning and origin of Churchill’s domestic policies, which were central to his political life and usually get short shrift.

This feels pertinent now. Some readers will have found themselves the past few years, even before Donald Trump, certainly since the wars and the crash of 2008, revisiting and questioning political stances and assumptions they’d previously held with confidence. That questioning has been playing out in this space since 2005. For some Republicans, the question has been whether to change the party or leave it. For some Democrats, it’s “Am I completely comfortable in a party that appears to be charging, culturally and economically, to the hard left?”

Churchill, elected to Parliament as a Tory and from an ancestral Tory family, crossed the aisle early in his career and joined the Liberals. He later rejoined the Conservatives. Mostly this was due to his sense of what was required at that moment in terms of policy. He had a shrewd sense of the lay of the land; for all his intellectual flights he believed in realism. Like a true aristocrat, Mr. Roberts notes, he was not a snob; he had a filial respect for and sense of responsibility toward “the masses.”

The proximate reason for his bolting the Tories was high tariffs; he was a free trader. But more was at play. His early political career was marked by a gradual coming to terms with the England he was seeing all around him and its ossified politics and parties. He had believed, in Mr. Roberts’s words, “that social reform was not the exclusive preserve of the Liberals but could be appropriated by what he called ‘the Tory democracy.’ ”

But they weren’t good at appropriating. Churchill came out for the progressive income tax, with total exemptions for the poor. He backed the “minimum standards of life and labour,” policies that came to be the basis of the modern welfare state.

But free markets and competition mattered to him. Social spending was desirable—“spread a net over the abyss”—but it depended on “the existing competitive organization of society.” We need private enterprises, he said, “and do not grudge them their profits.” He opposed socialism. Were the early Christians socialist in spirit and practice? “The Socialism of the Christian era was based on the idea of ‘All mine is yours,’ ” he said. The socialism of the Labour Party “is based on the idea that ‘All yours is mine.’ ”

When he turned on the Tories it was wonderful work. They and the “protectionist manufacturers” say they support tariffs “because they love the working man,” he said in a speech in Manchester. “They love the working man, and they love to see him work.”

He was vivid, not vague, about his changes of mind. He told voters, “I admit I have changed my party. I don’t deny it. I am proud of it.” He didn’t think the Tories were an especially moral lot, and he didn’t think they saw the nation or its needs clearly. “I am delighted that circumstances have enabled me to break with them while I am still young and still have the first energies of my life to give to the popular cause.” He told his constituents he had plenty of loyalty—not to a party, but to them.

Years later, when he popped back to the Tories—he had a way of joining each party just before it began its ascent—he acknowledged what people were saying behind his back, and defused it with laughter. “Anyone can rat,” he said, “but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.”

He was candid in other ways. He rudely opposed women’s suffrage and said only “undesirable classes” of women wanted the vote. Suffragettes were rude right back, hounding him at his rallies and ringing bells to drown out his voice. He admitted he found it difficult to change his mind. “I was steadily moving forward to the position of whole-hearted supporter” of women’s rights, but he had been “much put off” by their efforts to curtail his speech and didn’t want to be seen “giving way” to such tactics.

It is good when politicians are frank about their opponents’ methods, and reasonable to admit you don’t want to appear to be bowing to them. Nobody likes to be bullied.

Something especially pertinent to this moment: Churchill was a warrior who threw insults like lightning bolts. He fought hard for his side. But he said political division “does not in my mind prejudice personal relations.” He was broad in his friendships, which encompassed figures of left, right and center. Mr. Roberts notes he was “privately affable” with friends and foes. He dined with the Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb. He separated politics from personal friendship, in part, Mr. Roberts implies, because he understood we are not only political beings. His openness was misunderstood by people “who assumed he was being insincere either in the friendship or in the politics. In fact he was being neither.” If he liked you or valued your mind, you were in.

This old style should be made new again.

And Merry Christmas. May you reconsider whether someone is really a foe, and if he is, dine with him anyway.

A Magic Pony Is the Wrong Horse to Back Trump, like Obama before him, appealed primarily to emotion. That’s a troubling political trend.

Fox News’ year-end poll is interesting. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they would vote today to re-elect President Trump, with 30% saying they definitely would. Thirty-nine percent say they expect him to be re-elected; 52% do not. At the same time, the president has a 46% job-approval rating, while 52% disapprove.

So the president’s approval numbers have been more or less steady, but not all those who approve of him are ready to vote for him again.

Possible reasons why are suggested deeper in the poll. The proportion who think the economy will be better a year from now has fallen 11 points since two years ago, to 45%—the most pessimistic outlook in Fox’s poll since January 2001. Fifty-one percent say the economy is either fair or poor; 47% see it as excellent or good.

Equally interesting, respondents approve of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation by 56% to 37%—a 19-point margin. Forty-eight percent say they believe the Trump campaign coordinated with the government of Russia in 2016, while 37% see no coordination. Four in 10 expect Mueller will find evidence of crimes, while just over half of those polled do not think they will be impeachable offenses.

Beto O'Rourke
Beto O’Rourke

In a way the president’s position is solid—his support is not melting down after the midterms and his party’s loss of the House—and in a way not solid at all. He’s not expanding his base. Voters who approve of his leadership give themselves plenty of wiggle room in terms of support, showing skepticism about the economy and open-mindedness on the Mueller probe.

The poll suggests that if the president fires Mr. Mueller, he will pay a hellacious price in public opinion, with even his core experiencing some bleed.

The poll left me thinking of what a high-ranking Republican who himself was once considered a possible president said last week in conversation in Washington. He knows the president and the White House, and he certainly knows politics. He speculated aloud on a hunch he’s had that Mr. Trump might not run for re-election. Think of it, he said. Unrelenting bad news is likely coming—final findings from Mr. Mueller, a new and hungry Democratic House, more investigations, little bipartisanship, economic uncertainty. It’s not going to be fun; the outlook for re-election will dim.

So, the politician said, imagine this: The president wakes up one morning and announces that, actually and amazingly, he’s accomplished everything he set out to do when he ran in 2016—cut taxes, appointed judges, faced off with China, made better trade deals, controlled immigration, improved the outlook for financial markets. “I accomplished in four years what other guys couldn’t do in eight!” the president says: “My work is done!”

And he’s gone. The politician thought this just might happen.

Since we’ve already begun to look toward 2020, a thought on what we’ve been doing the past few cycles.

Here is my concern: Politics is part theater, part showbiz, it’s always been emotional, but we’ve gotten too emotional, both parties. It’s too much about feelings and how moved you are. The balance is off. We have been electing magic ponies in our presidential contests, and we have done this while slighting qualities like experience, hard and concrete political accomplishment, even personal maturity. Barack Obama, whatever else he was, was a magic pony. Donald Trump too. Beto O’Rourke, who is so electrifying Democrats, also appears to be a magic pony.

Messrs. Obama and Trump represented a mood. They didn’t ask for or elicit rigorous judgment, they excited voters. Mr. Trump’s election was driven by a feeling of indignation and pushback: You elites treat me like a nobody in my own country, I’m about to show you who’s boss. His supporters didn’t consider it disqualifying that he’d never held office. They saw it as proof he wasn’t in the club and could turn things around. His ignorance was taken as authenticity. In this he was like Sarah Palin, another magic pony.

After two wars and an economic crisis, Mr. Obama gleamed with hope and differentness. This shining 47-year-old intellectual—surely he’ll turn things around. He’d been an obscure and indifferent state legislator who was only two years in the U.S. Senate when the move to make him president began. It was all—a feeling. He was The One. Mr. O’Rourke, who’s shooting up in the polls as a possible Democratic contender, is sunny, friendly, even-keeled. He reminds some Democrats of Bobby Kennedy—soulful, able to see and summon the things you like best in yourself. He even looks like a son of Bobby Kennedy. He is 46, has served only six years in the House, and before that was on the City Council of El Paso, Texas.

Our public political culture has given in too much to emotionalism. Last week at the George H.W. Bush funeral, which functioned as a two-hour portal into the old America, something was unsatisfying. Bush’s political life spanned 30 years. He had a way of seeing the world, thoughts and assumptions about it, a point of view, and these things had an impact on history. But most everyone speaking, and most in the pews, spoke not of the meaning of these things but of his personal qualities. That has its place, but we are talking history here, and the thoughts that produce it. The same was true at John McCain’s funeral.

We are highlighting emotions in our public life at the expense of meaning. And again, emotions are part of life and part of us, but only part, not the whole.

An exultant Chris Christie, cruising to re-election as governor of New Jersey in 2013, told me in an interview what writers don’t understand about modern politics. He said, “They misunderstand what people want from someone in political life right now.” Voters “want someone who’s going to solve their problems. And who’s gonna be practical. . . . And who has a philosophy that they can live with.” Pundits are always trying to check off issues on a list, “and I don’t think that’s what politics is. Politics is a feeling. It’s a visceral reaction to someone. Especially when you’re voting for an executive.”

I didn’t say so at the time, but I personally disapproved: Politics isn’t only a feeling, it’s about thought and judgment, it’s about matters of the head and the heart. But I remember after I quoted him the number of smart people who did not see it differently, who said that guy is pretty smart.

But sober judgment, serious accomplishment, deep knowledge and personal maturity are most important in our political leaders, because of the complexity of the problems we face. History will be confounded that at such a crucial time, trying to come up with a plan to address such issues as artificial intelligence and robotics and the future of work and a rising China and the stresses of the nuclear world, we kept choosing magic ponies and hoping for the best.

History Gives George Bush His Due As America’s mystique has faded, we’ve grown to miss the skill and steadiness we once took for granted.

I feel it needs to be said again: George Herbert Walker Bush should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership during the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was an epic moment in modern world history, and a close-run thing. “One mishap and much could unravel,” former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said, in his eulogy, of those days when the wall was falling, the Warsaw Pact countries rising and the Soviet Union trying to keep its footing as it came to terms with its inevitable end. Patience and shrewdness were needed from the leader of the West, a sensitive, knowing hand.

In “A World Transformed” (1998), Bush described his public approach as being marked by “gentle encouragement.” It caused him some trouble: “I had been under constant criticism for being too cautious, perhaps because I was subdued in my reaction to events. This was deliberate.” He didn’t want to embarrass or provoke. He reminded Mikhail Gorbachev, at the December 1989 Malta summit, that “I have not jumped up and down on the Berlin Wall.”

Funeral of President George H.W. Bush
The casket of former President George H.W. Bush in St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.

It was Bush’s gift to be sensitive even to Soviet generals who were seeing their world collapse around them. He knew a humiliated foe is a dangerous foe—and this foe had a nuclear arsenal. He slowly, carefully helped ease Russia out of its old ways and structures, helped it stand as its ground firmed up, and helped divided Germany blend together peacefully, fruitfully.

You’d think the world would have been at his feet, and the prizes flying in from Oslo. It didn’t happen. Why?

Here’s a theory: Bush’s achievement wasn’t seen for what it was, in part because America in those days was still going forward in the world with its old mystique. Its ultimate grace and constructiveness were a given. It had gallantly saved its friends in the First World War, and again in the Second; it had led the West’s resistance to communism. It was expected to do good.

Having won the war, of course it would win the peace. It seemed unremarkable that George Bush, and Brent Scowcroft, and a host of others did just that.

Bush was the last president to serve under—and add to—that American mystique. It has dissipated in the past few decades through pratfalls, errors and carelessness, with unwon wars and the economic crisis of 2008. The great foreign-affairs challenge now is to go forward in the world successfully while knowing the mystique has been lessened, and doing everything possible to win it back.

Bush came to be somewhat defensive about his reticence in those days. As a former aide I respected his caution, his sense that the wrong move could cause things to go dark at any moment. But I saw it differently: This was a crucial event in the history of the West, and its meaning needed stating by the American president. There was much to be lauded, from the hard-won unity of the West to Russia’s decision to move bravely toward new ways. Much could be said without triumphalism.

It is a delicate question, in statecraft as in life, when to speak and when not to. George Bush thought it was enough to do it, not say it, as the eulogists asserted. He trusted the people to infer his reasoning from his actions. (This was his approach on his tax increase, also.) But in the end, to me, leadership is persuasion and honest argument: This is my thinking. I ask you to see it my way.

Something deeply admirable, though: No modern president now considers silence to be an option, ever. It is moving to remember one who did, who trusted the people to perceive and understand his actions. Who respected them that much.

To the state funeral in the Washington Cathedral: Its pomp and ceremony served to connect Americans to our past and remind us of our dignity. In a way, it was a resummoning of our mystique. It was, for a moment, the tonic a divided nation needed.

There was majesty—the gleaming precision of the full-dress military, the flag-draped casket coming down the aisle, the bowed heads and hands on hearts, the bells tolling, the dignified solemnity.

For those of us in the pews there was none of the sadness and anguish that accompanies the leaving of a soul gone too soon, or tragically. This was a full life happily lived, and we were there to applaud, to see each other and say, “Remember that time?”

There was a sense of gratitude that the old man had, the past week, gotten his due. For decades the press and others had roughed him up—“wimp,” “lapdog.” His contributions had not been fully appreciated. Now they were. We were happy but not triumphalist.

We were reminded: History changes its mind. Nothing is set. A historical reputation can change, utterly. Sometimes history needs time and distance to see the landscape clearly.

And history is human. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the seniormost world leader, was there. Back home her party was in the middle of a battle to choose her successor, and she couldn’t afford to be gone. But when she heard of Bush’s death she said she had to come to Washington. She told reporters that without Bush, she “would hardly be standing here.” She had grown up in East Germany.

There was something else. She had told Bob Kimmitt, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, that Bush had treated her “like a somebody when I was not.” Meeting with the obscure junior minister in the Oval Office in 1991, the president treated the young woman with great personal and professional respect. And so there she was this week, because history is human and how you treat people matters.

Two other points about the funeral. Its unembarrassed religiosity and warmly asserted Christianity were beautiful, and refreshing. The burial rite was from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, and it was a great and moving moment when the presiding bishop, Rev. Bruce Curry, met the flag-draped coffin at the Great West Doors and said: “With faith in Jesus Christ, we receive the body of our brother George for burial.” Such simple, humble, egalitarian words. “Our brother George.” The frozen chosen done themselves proud.

And there was a consistent message in the speeches. George Bush in his 94 years asked for and received everything—a big, loving family, wealth, position, power, admiration. But the lesson of that life was clear: He worked for it, he poured himself into it. He gave it everything he had. He made sacrifices to be who he was.

We gave a lot of attention to his life this week, in part because we want to remind ourselves that such fruitful lives are possible. We want to show the young among us what should be respected and emulated, and that public service can be a calling, and that calling brilliantly met.

This was a good man, a brave one who proved himself solid when major edifices of the world were melting away. He was kind and gentle.

And he loved America.

We were lucky to have him—the steady one, the sensitive one. The diplomat.

Reflections on Impeachment, 20 Years Later It was a tragedy for Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky and America. He could have averted it by apologizing.

December marks the 20th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. There are many recent retrospectives on the scandal that led to it, including former Independent Counsel Ken Starr’s mildly indignant “Contempt” and Alex Gibney’s superb documentary series “The Clinton Affair.”

As I look back 20 years on, I’m more indignant about some aspects, less about others.

I didn’t believe the story when I first heard it—presidents and staffers don’t carry on like that. When I came to see it was true, I was angry. I wrote angrily in these pages.

I see it all now more as a tragedy than a scandal. I am more convinced than ever that Mr. Clinton made the epic political miscalculation of the 20th century’s latter half. He had two choices when news of the affair was uncovered: tell the truth and pay the price, or lie and hope to get away with it.

President William J. Clinton
President William J. Clinton

If he’d told the truth, even accompanied by a moving public apology, the toll would have been enormous. He would have taken a hellacious political beating, with a steep slide in public approval and in stature. He would have been an object of loathing and ridicule—the goat in the White House, a laughingstock. Members of his party would have come down on him like a ton of bricks. Newt Gingrich and the Republicans would have gleefully rubbed his face in it every day. There would have been calls for impeachment.

It would have lasted many months. And he would have survived and his presidency continued.

Much more important—here is why it is a tragedy—it wouldn’t have dragged America through the mud. It only would have dragged him through the mud. His full admission of culpability would have averted the false testimony in a criminal investigation that became the basis for the Starr report and the two articles of impeachment the House approved.

The American people would’ve forgiven him for the affair. We know this because they’d already forgiven him when they first elected him. There had been credible allegations of affairs during the 1992 campaign. Voters had never thought highly of him in that area. His nickname the day he was inaugurated was “Slick Willie.”

If he had chosen the path of honesty, Americans wouldn’t have backed impeaching him, because they are adults and have also made mistakes and committed sins. They would have been more like the grand-jury member who spoke comfortingly to Monica Lewinsky as she wept near the end of her testimony: “Monica, none of us in this room are perfect. We all fall and we all fall several times a day. The only difference between my age and when I was your age is I get up faster.” That is the sound of an American looking in the face of remorse.

And we know Mr. Clinton would have been forgiven because in September 1998—after the Starr report was released, amid all the mud and lies and jokes about thongs and cigars—a Gallup poll asked, “Based on what you know at this point, do you think that Bill Clinton should or should not be impeached and removed from office?” Sixty-six percent answered “should not be.”

Bill Clinton, political genius, didn’t understand his country’s heart.

And so he lied: “I want you to listen to me. . . . I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”—and the year of hell, the cultural catastrophe, followed. That’s what it was, a year in which 8-year-olds learned about oral sex from the radio on the way home from school, and 10-year-olds came to understand that important adults lie, angrily and consistently, and teenagers knew if the president can do it, I can do it. It marked the end of a certain mystique of leadership, and it damaged the mystique of American democracy. All of America’s airwaves were full of the sludge—phone sex and blue dresses. The scandal lowered everything.

It was a tragedy because in lying and trying to protect himself, Mr. Clinton was deciding not to protect America. And that is the unforgivable sin, that he put America through that, not what happened with Monica.

Mr. Clinton’s foes made the catastrophe worse. The independent counsel was obliged by law to “advise the House of Representatives of any substantial and credible information . . . that may constitute grounds for an impeachment.” The Starr report ran 452 pages and contained an astonishing level of sexual detail, of prurient, gratuitous specificity. Congress could have withheld it from the public or released an expurgated version. It didn’t have to be so humiliating. But Mr. Clinton’s enemies made sure it was.

Almost immediately on receiving the Starr report, Congress voted to release it in full, “so that the fullest details of his sins could be made public,” as Ken Gormley writes in his comprehensive 2010 history of the scandal, “The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr.” They put it up on the web. Its contents wound up on every screen in America, every newspaper, every television and radio.

Lawmakers released the videotape of Mr. Clinton’s grand-jury testimony, so everyone could see the handsome presidential liar squirm.

Mr. Starr’s staffers said they needed extremely detailed, concrete specificity to make the American people understand what happened. At the time I assumed that was true in a legal sense. Now I look back and see mere blood lust and misjudgment.

I see the desire to rub Mr. Clinton’s face in it just as he’d rubbed America’s face in it.

Top to bottom, left to right, a more dignified government, one that cared more about both America’s children and its international stature, would have shown more self-restraint and forbearance. And there might have been just a little pity for the desperate, cornered liar who’d defiled his office.

It wouldn’t have so ruined the life of a woman who, when her relationship with the president commenced, was only 22. She paid a steeper reputational price than anyone. Charles Rangel, at the time a senior Democratic congressman, said on television that she was a “young tramp.” The White House slimed her as a fantasist. She went into hiding, thought about suicide.

And in the end, 20 years later, she put the Clintons to shame.

Publicly for two decades she has reacted with more style and dignity than they, said less and with less bitterness and aggression, when they were the ones with all the resources, and a press corps eager to maintain good relations with them because Hillary would surely one day be president.

Monica told her side and kept walking, and even refrained from blaming her shaming on the Clintons. Feminists abandoned and derided her. She took it all on her back and bore it away. In my book, after all this time, she deserves respect.

Sometimes America gets fevers. They don’t so much break as dissipate with time. Twenty years ago we were in a fever. Others will come. The thing to do when it happens is know it’s happening, notice when the temperature is high, and factor it in as you judge and act, realizing you’re not at your best. Twenty years ago, almost none of our leaders were.

The Pilgrims Take Manhattan Once a year a varied, bubbling and modern crew gathers and is moved by the story of how we began.

Since tradition is on our mind I’ll tell you of one that has been happening in a Manhattan home the past 20 years or more. A core of a few dozen old friends and relatives, enlivened by surprise guests—once we had an Indian maharajah in a turban—gather with their children for Thanksgiving. It’s a varied, bubbling, modern crew: former spouses, co-workers, step children, the woman across the street. Every year after dinner we put on a play about Thanksgiving. Everyone takes part—a broadcast journalist is Samoset, a grade-schooler is a Pilgrim woman, a businessman is Lincoln.

There is a narrator, whose job it is to intone: “In the year of our Lord 1609 a hardy group of dissenting Christian Protestants, called Pilgrims, left their native England in hopes of finding religious freedom abroad. They tried Holland, but it didn’t work. And so they decided to leave old Europe, and journey to what was called . . . the New World.”

ThanksgivingIn September 1620 they set sail from Plymouth, England, on a ship called the Mayflower. Aboard were about 100 passengers, among whom roughly were 40 were Pilgrims, who came to call themselves Saints. The remaining were called Strangers, not religious dissenters necessarily but a mixed lot of tradesmen, debtors, dreamers and I hope a brigand or two. If you’re going to start a new nation it might as well be an interesting one.

The journey would be long, just over two months, and hard. The seas were high, the wind against them, hunger spread, disease followed. People got on each others’ nerves. Disagreements arose among Saints and Strangers.

Here the kids read their parts with great enthusiasm.

SAINT: “Stranger, you do not worship as I do or dress as I dress. You are odd! This makes me want to ignore you, and forget to give you bread at dinner.”

STRANGER: “Saint, you people wear funny hats, and strange buckles on your shoes. You take your religion seriously, which is nice, but God wanted us to have a sense of humor, too. Please don’t be so stern and righteous.”

At this point of course comes forward Pilgrim leader William Bradford. He’s usually played by a distinguished guest.

BRADFORD: “Gentlemen and ladies, there is no need to fight. We are not enemies, but friends. We are fleeing Old Europe—together. We journey to a new home—together. We will make our lives on the new continent—together. Let’s think things through and create a new arrangement to better order our relations.”

And so they did. Meetings were held, debates ensued, agreement reached. There would be full equality between Saints and Strangers. They would govern themselves by majority rule. They would mark their unity by calling themselves by one name: Pilgrims. All the Pilgrim gentlemen signed this agreement, which they called the Mayflower Compact.

It was the first, great founding document of what would become the United States of America.

Here sometimes someone goes, “Hear, Hear!”

Now land is sighted, Cape Cod. A Pilgrim girls shouts “Land ahoe! Hard to starboard! Mainfast the jibney!” She’s talking gibberish because she’s excited: It’s the New World!

The Mayflower eventually finds a small natural harbor, named years before by Captain John Smith. It is called Plymouth. In time, one by one, the Pilgrims disembark and step upon Plymouth Rock.

Here—hokily, happily—we have a brief moment of silence.

Building a settlement is hard going, snow and sleet slow things. Almost half the Pilgrims died.

Then springtime, and a miracle. A lone Indian brave walked into the settlement. The Pilgrims were afraid—they’d never seen an Indian up close. The brave, Samoset, sensed and understood their fear, and said to them the one word he knew in English: “Welcome.”

They invited him to stay the night. He did, and later returned with another Indian named Squanto.

Our young friend George usually plays this part, because of his ebullience.

SQUANTO: “Hello. Good to meet you! I have known many English over the years. In fact I’ve been to England. The Captain of one of his majesty’s vessels took me there a few years ago. I learned the King’s English and people were good to me, and now I return the favor. I will teach you how to tap maple trees for sap to turn into syrup. I’ll show you which plants can be turned into medicine, and which are poisonous. I’ll teach you how to grow and harvest Indian Corn. I’ll show you where to fish.”

Squanto saved their lives. Harvests improved, and in time the Pilgrims had enough food to put away for winter—vegetables, fish packed in salt and cured over fires.

The Pilgrims wanted to thank God. And so their new governor—William Bradford, of compact fame—proclaimed a formal day of gratitude.

Here in the play Bradford stands and ringingly invites everyone—the settlers, Indians, parents and children, to meet, pray and thank Providence for the abundance with which they’ve been blessed.

Bradford’s speech gave us our sweetest memory of the play. Our friend Harry, editor and Englishman, had become an American citizen. He was so moved by Bradford’s words his voice broke. His wife hugged him, and we all went AAHHHHH.

Everyone came to the first Thanksgiving—Squanto and 90 braves and their families. There were foot races and games. The braves demonstrated their prowess with the bow and arrow, the Pilgrims with their muskets. One man played a drum. Everyone ate together at big tables and on blankets.

Years later, George Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving, as America won its war of independence. But it was Abe Lincoln who, in 1863, formally declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. In our play, as in his proclamation, he readily acknowledges the horror of the Civil War, but then takes a very American turn. There is much to celebrate. Peace has been preserved between America and all other nations. Harmony has prevailed everywhere except the theatre of direct battle. Our population has increased. We have every reason to expect a “large increase of freedom.” No human hand has done this. “(These) are the gracious gifts of the most high God.”

At the end, the players declare their hopes for the future:

SAMOSET: “For the broad establishment of peace,”

PILGRIM GIRL: “For the spreading of prosperity,”

SQUANTO: “For increases in human health, and great strides in the areas of human inquiry and invention,”

WASHINGTON: “For the continuance of our Republic,”

LINCOLN: “And the deepening of our democracy,”

BRADFORD: “That ye remember with special gratitude Squanto and his little ones and tribe, who were so very kind to the Pilgrims in those hard days long ago.”

*   *   *

And so our little play, put on again this year, in the heart of sophisticated Manhattan. I’m always struck: there’s such division in America, and so much country-love. I don’t know the political views of all our players. I’d put most as moderate liberals, with me a confessed conservative. But halfway through our show we are captains and Indians and presidents. We are moved by the story of how we began. We honor it. And we are not saints and strangers but pilgrims, together.