The Politics of Boasting

We don’t often look to electoral politics for sublime life lessons, yet sometimes the lessons are there. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, two popular Republican politicians, have dropped out of the 2008 presidential race. Both candidates exemplified an attitude that has been with us forever but seems to have a peculiar hold on our own time: the attitude of arrogance, or vain overconfidence. Perhaps voters wished to punish this attitude by refusing to vote for either man.

rudyfirsts.jpgRudy Giuliani’s smug self-assurance had been legendary during his long career as District Attorney and Mayor in New York City. But he revealed a more off-putting overconfidence to voters with his strange decision to not compete in the earliest GOP Primaries. He calmly assured his followers that he would sweep up victory in Florida, incorrectly guessing that no other candidate would excite voters in the prior contests. This was a bad strategy in several ways, but it may have backfired for one particular reason above all: it reminded voters of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld’s flippant assurances that they would easily sweep up victory in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2008, overconfident leadership is the polar opposite of what Americans want.

Mitt Romney’s arrogance — a relaxed square-jawed perfection excavated from an earlier age — has always been different from Giuliani’s. Unlike John McCain and Mike Huckabee, Romney rarely revealed any personal frailty or flaw, betrayed few complex emotions, and was never caught agonizing over a decision. In other eras of American politics, this politician might have been highly valued for his Teflon sheen, but again in 2008 we’ve had enough of slick impenetrability. After eight years of “stuff happens” (from Katrina to Pakistan, and stuff is still happening), American voters may need a long recovery period before we’ll vote for a politician with a self-assured, unflappable personality again.

Maybe this is why Hillary Clinton’s biggest rebound moment occurred after she teared up before a TV audience, or why the naturally intense and earnest Barack Obama is catching on with voters. But arrogance hasn’t always been a detriment for a politician. When George W. Bush first emerged as a Presidential candidate a decade ago, his cool arrogance was considered his best feature. It made him “Reaganesque.” Ronald Reagan’s easygoing charm was always rooted in a stern and unshakable confidence that people yearned to find again, and this was no small factor in the emergence of another ex-President’s wayward Texan son as a conservative politician. When the younger George W. Bush’s advisors, pollsters, and image makers assembled him in the laboratory, they marveled at the creature’s unflappable self-certainty.

bushpraise.jpgGeorge W. Bush was constantly referred to as “Reaganesque” in his earlier years, though this image seems so far away now that we easily forget it. It turned out that President George W. Bush did not have the leadership skills of President Ronald Reagan. Just the arrogance.

Of course, U.S. Presidents have been arrogant since the imperious George Washington, who demanded that his subjects kneel. There were perhaps none more blustery than the remarkable Theodore Roosevelt, whose effusive self-confidence is still fondly remembered today. Richard Nixon always presented a face of somber self-righteousness to the public, and a much deeper and insidious arrogance was revealed on the White House Tapes released during the Watergate affair. Jimmy Carter’s inability to rally his government behind his leadership appears to have been rooted in a principled rigidity. It’s probably the case that more US Presidents have been deeply arrogant than not.

It’s a more troubling fact that the United States of America is constantly described as an arrogant nation by many who criticize it, from Noam Chomsky books to Al Qaeda videos to countless casual conversations among concerned citizens. This, again, is nothing new. It was our arrogant Pacific Rim policy that frustrated Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941, for instance. So, is the United States of America actually arrogant? And what exactly does it mean to say this?

ar &#8226 ro • gance: (noun) offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.

Whether this shoe fits or not cannot be easily decided, but it does seem easy to understand how various American policies in Asia, the Middle East, Central America, South America, Africa and Europe can be seen as arrogant. Other world powers like Russia, England, China, France and Germany carry on similar legacies, and more generally it’s clear that a natural belief in the superiority of one’s nation, one’s religion, one’s ethnic group, one’s class, or one’s gender is universal in every society on Earth. It’s hard to imagine any influential nation of any size that has not acted arrogantly towards its neighbors.

Arrogance is as common as the air we breathe. You can’t walk down the street without slamming into it, usually coming at you from several directions at once.

It’s a strange fact that arrogance is not one of the seven deadly sins, while pride is. defines pride as something much more positive than arrogance:

pride (noun): A sense of one’s own proper dignity or value; self-respect.

So how can pride be a sin if arrogance is not? The seven deadly sins were developed by a number of early Christian writers. One version was endorsed (and thus codified) by Pope Gregory I in the sixth century. I wonder if this pope might have chosen pride over arrogance as one of the seven deadly sins because pride denotes a certain secretive self-regard, while arrogance does not. Pride is a private feeling, whereas arrogance is essentially public and relational. You can only be arrogant in relation to others, and by being arrogant you are being honest about your true feelings. Several of the deadly sins revolve around secrecy, but arrogance is an honest expression of what you believe.

In 2008, the United States of America seems to be reeling from a trauma of arrogant and incompetent leadership, and there’s no telling what ripple effects this trauma may eventually cause. But even if American voters are turning towards more down-to-earth candidates in 2008, it’s hard to imagine that human nature is being fundamentally changed. We were designed to be arrogant, and to admire arrogance in others. We can’t defeat arrogance and we can’t erase it; perhaps all we need to do is avoid being blinded by it in the future and we’ll be okay.

Hillary’s Tears, Our Tears

hillary.jpgLorrie Moore’s naive essay on Hillary Clinton not only demonstrates the unspoken precept that skilled fiction writers are sometimes remarkably simplistic when they write about politics, but deploys the same scripted liberalism that every progressive is now expected to chant to peers in coffeehouses. The formula, it seems, boils down to this: Hillary Bad, Obama Good.

Now I’m not exactly a Hillary lover. Clinton waffled from a 1993 universal health care plan which mandated all employers to provide health care for employees to her latest “universal” plan, which shifts the mandatory financial burden to individual citizens. But a proper universal health care program is single-payer, regulated by the government, and doesn’t abdicate the spoils to HMOs. Clinton is also the senator who received the most money from HMOs in the 2008 election cycle. (Obama was second.)

Like every good left-leaning American, I have been seduced by the seemingly limitless reserves of Obama’s charisma: his smooth handling of Bill O’Reilly’s arrogant attack dog antics, his adroit response to anti-abortion protesters, insert your magical Obama moment here.

The man is slick. Slicker than Bill Clinton. I firmly believe that he can be the next President. He looks good. Too good.

In comparing Obama with Clinton, Moore writes that “unlike her, he is original and of the moment. He embodies, at the deepest levels, the bringing together of separate worlds. The sexes have always lived together, but the races have not.”

wecandoitreal.jpgI wonder if Moore remains aware that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, women earn 77 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make. (The disparity, incidentally, is better in Washington, DC, where women make 91 cents to the male dollar. This may explain why Capitol Hill remains somewhat out-of-touch on this issue. An Equal Rights Amendment may provide succor to these problems.) Or maybe Moore remains unaware that young women are earning degrees at a higher rate than men do.

This certainly doesn’t reflect a case where the sexes “have always lived together.” Unless, of course, we’re talking garden-variety cohabitation. And while Obama may talk the talk, I fail to see how Obama’s legislation record brings together separate worlds in any way that is substantially different from Hillary Clinton. The oft bandied boast is that Obama was not Senator in 2002 and therefore unable to vote for the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq. But what’s not to suggest that within this climate of fear, Obama wouldn’t have done so? (The record demonstrates that John Edwards also voted for it. Kucinich and Paul did not.)

The distinction then is predicated on retroactive speculation. Which is a bit like seriously considering the ridiculous question Bernard Shaw asked of Michael Dukakis during the 1984 Democratic presidential debates: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Kitty Dukakis was not raped and murdered. Obama was not Senator during 2002. Nonetheless, it is an American political tradition to rate presidential candidates according to what they may have done under certain circumstances, as opposed to a more reasonable survey of what they are likely to do based on their past records.

So ultimately the difference between Obama and Clinton comes down to charisma. To watch Obama in action is to experience the most pleasant and capable of political machines. He’ll jazz up a crowd in minutes and give them the fleeting sense that they can change the world. But who is the wizard behind the curtain? Progressives — including myself — were so eager to fixate upon Karl Rove, but why do we fail to apply the same standards to those who run Obama’s campaign?

Last week, Hillary Clinton welled up on camera and was roundly ridiculed. The question arose over whether this was sincere. Cruel YouTube parodies surfaced soon after. For some, the tears confirmed the inevitable. Here are some of the YouTube comments:

I really feel that Hillary Clinton is a worhless [sic] piece of shit.

i hate this woman

This bitch won because she got on national television with her fake crocodile tears in front of million of viewers.

Yea what a fucking cow. She should be making pizza.

This is a very EVIL fricken human being…She should be ashamed of herself! If she had any heart at all she would finally tell the truth!

Go and fuck Bill.. instead of cheating people

Hillary Clinton is a worthless piece of shit.

And so on.

This was not, however, a Muskie moment, even if an op-ed columnist like Newsweek‘s Karen Breslau was keen to dredge up the droplet that careened down Muskie’s cheek and sealed his political fate. Until the primary results dictate otherwise, Clinton is still very much in the game.

What was not factored in Breslau’s article was the double standard with regard to gender. I find myself being one of the few who remains suspicious about never seeing a gaffe from Obama. Real humans screw up. But presidential politics demands perfection or, as Bush’s two victories confirm, a guy you can drink a beer with.

The cult of personality remains so seductive that even adept writers like Moore offer this foolishness: “it is a little late in the day to become sentimental about a woman running for president. The political moment for feminine role models, arguably, has passed us by.”

On the contrary, the present political moment is very much about whether a president has the right to appear sentimental before the cameras, which in turn is very much predicated upon whether the candidate is a man or a woman. It does not matter what Hillary Clinton’s positions are. What matters most of all is whether or not the “bitch” or “the worthless piece of shit” fabricated her tears.

The question we should be asking is just why these gratuitous issues of telegenic interpretation are deflecting more pressing concerns, such as platforms and positions, and why even the best of us are happily swallowing the bait.