I was wrong to suggest that Paul Wolfowitz was like Robert McNamara. That is disrespectful to McNamara. The better comparison is to Jimmy Swaggart. Let me explain, through the roundabout medium of Norman Podhoretz.

Long ago, in the unbelievably frigid days in Washington just before Ronald Reagan was sworn in, by chance I met Podhoretz at a pre-inauguration party. He was then the editor of Commentary magazine and a big, fervent figure in developing what we would come to know as neo-conservatism. Two important allies in this cause were his wife, Midge Decter, and son in law, Elliott Abrams, later of Iran-contra fame. As a former employee of the soon-to-be-ousted Jimmy Carter administration, whose flounderings during the Iran hostage crisis became the neocons’ symbol of feckless American liberalism, I was not a natural invitee to such parties. But my next-door neighbor was a big-time Republican and had asked me over.

I ended up uncomfortably in a corner with Podhoretz, to whom I had been introduced as an ex-Carterite. Politely, he asked what I was doing now. I said that I had just the day before finished a book about military policy. It would be published a few months later as National Defense. The point of the book, I told him, rose from what I had discovered during some interesting reporting in and around the Pentagon. If you looked objectively at the details of how men and machinery perform in combat, you would end up being skeptical of a lot of the very expensive, fragile, overcomplex weaponry in the U.S. arsenal — and instead would pay a lot more attention to guile, agility, the moral elements of leadership, the bond between the military and the public, and similar assets that money alone couldn’t buy. And you wouldn’t be in any rush to pump up the defense budget, as Carter had begun doing after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (remember when that was considered the graveyard of big powers?) and as Reagan had promised to do even faster. You would instead concentrate on how troops and leaders did their jobs, under the unique constraints and circumstances of combat.

“Well, maybe,” Podhoretz said, skeptically. “It depends on what your intentions are.” That is, he could end up agreeing with my specific arguments if he believed I was, deep down, in favor of American strength. (Of course, virtually everyone whose views I described in the book, including the now-legendary Air Force colonel John Boyd, was a huge believer in American strength and had studied its operational realities, in detail.) But he might think something different if he suspected that I was merely grabbing another argument to denigrate the military. That is: first he’d figure out whether I was with him or against him. That would tell him whether to agree or disagree with my analysis. He didn’t put it quite that bluntly — and he was perfectly affable about it — but that was the point.

Everybody is like this to some degree. But in modern U.S. politics, I think the neocon/Bush combo is more “tribal” in its thinking than anyone else is. If you’re on the team, it’s very hard for you to do or say anything wrong. If not, the reverse. For instance: no organ of either the “mainstream” or the actually leftist press is as disciplined about propping up allies, no matter what, and shooting enemies on sight as are the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and most of what’s on Fox News. Democratic politicians are more disciplined than they used to be but still can’t help squabbling. By contrast there is evidently nothing Dick Cheney could do, say, exaggerate, or make up that would discredit him to his base. (The recent mini-rebellion against Cheney by students at BYU being an exception proving the rule.) Or Alberto Gonzales. Or Karl Rove. Or even Donald Rumsfeld — disaster in Iraq, moral shame at Abu Ghraib, the cancer of Guantanamo, none of these cost him a smidgen of diminished public support from his President, until he proved inconvenient when the 2006 election results came in.

This brings us back to Paul Wolfowitz. A natural extension of the in-group/tribal approach to life is the inability to ask or wonder: how would this look if the other side did it? How will it look to people who mistrust us or don’t automatically believe that everything we do is for a higher cause? This is a kind of political autism — an inability to sense or imagine other people’s reactions — and it runs the gamut. How would we feel about someone else “water boarding” our prisoners? How would we feel about the other political party intercepting our phone calls or emails? How would we like it if there were no right of habeus corpus? What would the world be like if everyone did what we are doing now?

The question Wolfowitz apparently failed to ask, is: given that I am basing my entire tenure at the World Bank on a crusade against corruption, how will it look if I extend special favors to a handful of political confidantes plus my girlfriend? Considering how many speeches I have given about those who use public office to do private favors, can I afford to dole out favors this way? Do the words “Caesar’s wife” ring any kind of bell? Or the name Jimmy Swaggart?

(It’s obvious, but just to spell it out: Sexual misbehavior was a huge problem for Bill Clinton but not proof of hypocrisy, because Clinton’s main point in life had never been: People should be chaste. Clinton would have been killed on the hypocrisy front if, like Spiro Agnew, he had been caught taking cash bribes in brown paper sacks, since he claimed not to be in politics for the personal profiteering. But for Jimmy Swaggart — or Jim Bakker, or their more recent counterpart Ted Haggard — sexual misbehavior was disastrous, because it showed that what they’d been preaching to others was the specific advice they could not follow themselves.)

And that’s why cozy self-dealing is such a problem for Paul Wolfowitz. He has said he is sorry, which is more than Cheney, or Rove, or Rumsfeld, or Gonzales has managed to choke out. But — already in a complicated position at the Bank, because of what he calls “my previous job” — he has guaranteed that no subsequent speech on his central topic, the evil of self-dealing, will ever be taken seriously by anyone he hopes to convince. Say this for Robert McNamara: he has lived his post-Vietnam life with an awareness of what he can and cannot say or do. Paul Wolfowitz, you’re no Robert McNamara.