WASHINGTON -- Stick with me for a moment while I make what may at first seem an odd coupling of the two biggest events of this week.
Like so many, I have been captivated by the amazing story of the cave divers who, against all the odds, saved the young Thai boys. But just as I was luxuriating in this too-rare example of the goodness of man, I switched to the news of our president's behavior preceding his trip to Europe and Russia.
And I wondered, "What has happened to us?"
Think of the uninterrupted darkness of those deep caves in northern Thailand and of battling the black currents, razor-sharp rocks and mind-maps of those netherworlds, armed mainly with your courage, your hope and, above all, your discipline. Think of the hours spent underground and underwater, hours the divers faced with the quiet demeanor of men who knew what they were doing.
Then think about the situation here. Top officials go in and out of this administration like sloppy subway riders punching their tickets. The White House is in shambles, with at least one of the remaining top people, Gen. John Kelly, apparently also on his way out. Meanwhile, the president readies himself for a journey that is so important it may well decide America's position in the world, armed only with tweets insulting NATO (yet again) and love notes to Vladimir Putin.
What behavior could possibly be less like the composed integrity of those cave divers? Instead of the classically honorable and noble acts of those men, we see our own leaders acting out a reality show without any real accomplishments (the Singapore meeting with North Korea), a drunken bachelor party where the jokes get coarser and coarser but, curiously enough, there isn't any alcohol.
Look first at the NATO visit. President Trump shows clearly by his words that he hates NATO -- hates those useless, free-loading "schmucks" (oh, sorry, that's what he calls us!). Until now, his disdain for NATO, which has kept the Western world at peace since 1945, amounted mostly to words, but on this trip, his insults could well lead to dangerous action.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said recently, "It is not written in stone that the transatlantic bond will survive forever." The Pentagon is making a cost analysis of the 35,000 American troops based in Germany, evoking concern that the president intends to withdraw them, leaving Central Europe and the Baltics open to Russian mischief and/or aggression. Respected Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis is being called in the Pentagon "the lonely warrior" who is never consulted by the White House anymore.
President Trump then moves on to Britain for dinner with Prime Minister Theresa May and tea with Queen Elizabeth (and wouldn't you just LOVE to listen in to that one?), golfing in Scotland and finally -- ohhhh, finally! -- to the yearned-for romantic rendezvous with Vladimir Putin.
Now, what could that one-on-one be about? David Ignatius, the well-informed Washington Post columnist, writes that Trump may be planning to cede Syria to Putin, abandoning U.S. allies on the ground there and allowing Syria's brutish President Bashar Assad to stay in power. Others fear Trump will officially OK Putin's takeover of Crimea and the eastern sections of Ukraine.
But any facts that come out of the meeting are, in the long run, less important than the mood -- that President Trump will undoubtedly sidle up to Putin, obviously filled with the liking and admiration for him that Trump has felt from day one of his presidential campaign, the roots of which remain a mystery.
In this fateful and revealing week, we are hearing more of what many of us hinted at before: that Donald J. Trump wants to turn the United States of America away from its traditional position of leadership and friendship with the West toward a new bond with the world's authoritarians and budding totalitarians.
As David Brooks wrote recently in The New York Times, our problems today "are about the steady collapse of the postwar order and the way power structures are being reorganized and renegotiated across societies and across the world."
Of course, many Americans are like the cave divers in Thailand -- courageous, giving and self-sacrificing. But if our leadership takes us away from those qualities -- this vulgarian of a leader has moved very quickly in doing so -- and enough foolish Americans follow him, what next?