Mr. Narcissus Goes to Washington

You’ve heard the mindless braying and fruitless arguments, but I’m here to tell you the facts, no matter what brickbats and catcalls may come my way. Lindsey Graham defied the biases of his constituency to do what was right, not what was easy. Robert Byrd put aside personal gain to save our Republic. David Pryor ignored the counsels of hate to stand firm for our hopes and dreams. Mike DeWine protected our way of life. These men are uniters, not dividers.

How do I know?

Because they told me. Again and again, and at great length, as they announced The Deal. And I believed them, because I am an idiot. Or as they might put it, your basic “folk” from “back home.”

Listening to them I thought of some of the great and hallowed phrases of our Republic. “The rooster who thought he brought the dawn.” “The only man who can strut sitting down.”

I know they’re centrists, but there is nothing moderate about their self-regard. And why should there be? I personally was dazzled by their refusal to bow to the counsels of common sense and proportion, and stirred that they had no fear of justified insult (“blowhard,” “puffed up popinjay”) as they moved forward in the halls of the United States Senate to bravely proclaim their excellence.

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John McCain wryly reminded us not to miss A&E’s biography of his heroic Vietnam experience. Joe Lieberman referred to the group as “this band of brothers, and sisters.” But my favorite was Lindsey Graham, who said, “I know there will be folks ‘back home’ who will be angry, but that’s only because they’re not as sophisticated and high-minded as I am. Actually they’re rather stupid, which is why they’re not in the Senate and I am. But I have 3 1/2 years to charm them out of their narrow-minded resentments, and watch me, baby.”

Oh, excuse me, that’s not what he said. That’s only what he meant. It was the invisible scroll as he spoke. The CNN identifier that popped up beneath his head as he chattered, however, did say, “Conceited Nitwit Who Affects ‘Back Home’ Accent to Confuse the Boobs.”

Oh wait, that’s not what it said. It said, “R-South Carolina.” My bad.

Actually, what Mr. Graham said was, “People at home are gonna be mad at me for a while.” He said he decided to support the deal because “kids are dyin’ “ in Iraq, “Social Security is comin’ up,” and “this is a lot bigger than me.” If only he knew that is true.

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Why do they do this? Is their egomania not part of a trend? Have you noticed that every announcement now made on television has become an Academy Awards show in which the speaker announces that he is the winner? I often watch cable news during the day, and in the past year I’ve been taken aback by what happens when a local police chief announces the capture of a serial killer who’s been murdering people for 30 years. The police chief does not say, “We finally got him.” Instead he gives a long speech congratulating himself, lauding law-enforcement personnel, complimenting his department, congratulating investigators and their families, and nodding to the district attorney, the attorney general and the governor. Sometimes the police chief’s voice shakes, so moved is he by the excellence of himself, his colleagues and his bosses. Then he announces a bad guy got caught. The only thing he never says is, “Sorry it took 30 years!” The only question he doesn’t want to hear is, “Didn’t you get tips on that guy in 1978?”

All this self-lauding has become strange. Public figures use the press to laud themselves with no embarrassment, no sense of what is important, and no sense of modesty. If Jack Webb were here he would deck these guys. Broderick Crawford would bark “10-4” and hit them on the head with his Highway Patrol walkie-talkie. Once again I think of the wisdom of Tony Soprano: Let Gary Cooper talk and he’ll never shut up.

Every announcement of news in America has become an Academy Awards show. And every speaker has become a variation on Sally Fields: “I like me, I really like me!”

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Back to the senators. Why did they put on that performance the other day? Yes, it was sheer exuberant egotism; it was the excitement of the TV lights; it was their sly conviction that if they laud themselves they will be appearing to laud the institution; and it was, no doubt, the counsel of their advisers that in the magic medium of television, if you declare you are a “hero” often enough people will come to associate the word “hero” with you. Advisers, you must stop telling them this. Please.

I think everyone in politics now has been affected by the linguistic sleight-of-hand, which began with the Kennedys in the 1960s, in which politics is called “public service,” and politicians are allowed and even urged to call themselves “public servants.” Public servants are heroic and self-denying. Therefore politicians are heroic and self-denying. I think this thought has destabilized them.

People who charge into burning towers are heroic; nuns who work with the poorest of the poor are self-denying; people who volunteer their time to help our world and receive nothing in return but the knowledge they are doing good are in public service. Politicians are in politics. They are less self-denying than self-aggrandizing. They are given fame, respect, the best health care in the world; they pass laws governing your life and receive a million perks including a good salary, and someone else—faceless taxpayers, “the folks back home”—gets to pay for the whole thing. This isn’t public service, it’s more like public command. It’s not terrible—democracies need people who commit politics; they have a place and a role to play—but it’s not saintly, either.

I don’t know if politicians have ever been modest, but I know they have never seemed so boastful, so full of themselves, and so dizzy with self-love.

There. Thank you. I yield the floor.