The Saddest Part of the Anonymous New York Times Op-Ed

The writer justifies continued service in the Trump administration by citing relatively trivial policy wins. Daniel Ellsberg, this is not.

Evan Vucci / AP

Okay—let’s make sure we have this straight: The anonymous senior administration official who devastated Donald Trump in the op-ed pages of The New York Times this week believes that the president is amoral; “is not moored to any discernible first principles”; acts “in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic”; is unstable and prone to “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions”; and has conspired with a bamboozled citizenry to allow “our discourse to be stripped of civility.”

So how does this would-be paladin justify his or her continued service in Trump’s government? Nominally, because as everyone knows, any high-chair king needs some grown-ups to keep his finger away from the nuclear button, to maintain a “two-track presidency” in which his worst predations are prevented by a kind of “axis of adults,” as the CNN commentator John Avlon mordantly put it.

But a more revealing motivation—and a sadder one—comes in the anonymous writer’s celebration of the “bright spots” in Trump’s unfolding term “that the near-ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture: effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.”

Really? And more what?

Set aside whether the writer is a courageous patriot or a gutless coward, and whether the Times was right or wrong to grant anonymity. Set aside the White House’s mole hunt to flush out the leaker, and the two dozen “senior administration officials” who rushed to insist they were not the traitor in their midst. Set aside, too, the rash insistence of the libertarian Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky that suspects should submit to lie-detector tests to prove their fealty.

Settle on this, though: The writer who would shoot the king to save him, and by extension the country, aimed the arrow awfully low. Defending “effective deregulation, historic tax cuts, a more robust military and more.” Seriously? Defending those relatively modest goals and achievements when—by the writer’s own perfervid, urgent reckoning—the security of the republic, the sanctity of the Constitution, and, just maybe, the fate of the Earth is at stake?

The smallness of those stakes calls to mind Sir Thomas More’s famous remonstrance in A Man for All Seasons, when he upbraids a colleague for perjuring himself in exchange for a minor Welsh appointment: “For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … But for Wales?”

At the dawn of the Cold War, George F. Kennan published his “X” article anonymously in Foreign Affairs, arguing that the United States should “contain” but not seek to destroy the Soviet Union in the long twilight struggle that American values and virtues ultimately won. In the dark days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, Daniel Ellsberg leaked what became known as the Pentagon Papers to the Times in an effort to cut short the nation’s misbegotten war in Southeast Asia, and perhaps save thousands of lives.

By those standards, “effective deregulation, historic tax cuts, a more robust military and more” seem—well—less. A lot less, no less.

Within days of the publication of Kennan’s article on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”—he was the State Department’s director of policy planning at the time—journalists discerned his authorship, owing partly to his distinctive, erudite style. Kennan was distraught, as his biographer John Lewis Gaddis noted. “Feeling like one who has inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff and now helplessly witnesses its path of destruction in the valley below,” Kennan wrote at the time, “shuddering and wincing at each successive glimpse of disaster.”

But when Secretary of State George Marshall called him to account, peering through his glasses and with raised eyebrows—at “whose raising, I may say, better men than I had quailed,” Kennan recalled—Kennan could say that the article had been cleared for publication by the department’s official committee, and there the matter rested.

Ellsberg had no such luck. For his troubles, when his identity became known, the Nixon White House Plumbers broke into his psychiatrist’s office in search of incriminating information. None was found, but the damage was done, as the White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman noted in a taped conversation with Nixon in June 1971. Haldeman cited the observation of Donald Rumsfeld, then a White House domestic-policy adviser, that to “the ordinary guy” the Pentagon papers were “a bunch of gobbledygook.”

“But out of the gobbledygook,” Haldeman added, “comes a very clear thing … You can’t trust the government, you can’t believe what they say, and you can’t rely on their judgment. And the—the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.”

Think about that: Nixon’s own most loyal aides—Haldeman, Rumsfeld—recognized the damage that Ellsberg’s revelations had done. Sure, they acknowledged the damage only in private, and, yes, they launched the unsparing campaign of retribution that helped lead to Nixon’s downfall. But Ellsberg’s leak involved something much bigger, vastly more important than “effective deregulation, historic tax cuts, a more robust military and more.”

If only the Times’ Mr. or Ms. X had shown the courage (or folly) of Ronald Reagan’s first budget director, David Stockman. Thirty-seven years ago, he had the temerity to say (out loud, and under his own name) that the administration’s economic policy was out of whack, that its much-promised, much-lauded tax cuts had not been matched by comparable spending discipline. “None of us really understands what’s going on with all these numbers,” Stockman told the journalist William Greider. Where did he say that? In the pages of this magazine. Its editorial heirs are all ears for anyone in the Trump administration who cares about more than “effective deregulation, historic tax cuts, a more robust military and more,” and who might be willing to say as much to the whole wide world, out loud.