The I’s Have It

We are becoming a conceited nitwit society, pushy and self-aggrandizing. No one is ashamed to brag now. and show off. They think it heightens them. They think it’s good for business.

It used to be that if you were big, you’d never tell people how big you were because that would be kind of classless, and small. In fact it would be a proof of smallness.

So don’t be showy. The big are modest.


There is the issue—small but indicative of something larger—of how members of the U.S. military present themselves, and the awe they consciously encourage in the public and among the political class. The other day on his Daily Beast blog, Andrew Sullivan posted a letter from a reader noting the way officers are now given and relentlessly wear on their dress uniforms ribbons, markers and awards for pretty much everything they do—what used to be called fruit salad. Mr. Sullivan posted two pictures we echo here, one of Gen. David Petraeus and one of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. This is the Eisenhower of D-Day, of the long slog through Europe in World War II. He didn’t seem to see the need to dress himself up and tell you what he’d done. Maybe he thought you knew. He didn’t wear all the honors to which he was entitled, though he could have used them to dazzle the masses if that had been what he was interested in.

Top brass sure is brassier than it used to be. And you have to wonder what that’s about. Where did the old culture of modesty go? Ulysses S. Grant wore four stars on his shoulder and nothing else on his uniform. And that was a fellow who’d earned a few medals.

Jump now to the woman who is the main focus in the Petraeus scandal, Paula Broadwell. She was a person of impressive achievement right from the start—high school valedictorian, West Point grad, master’s degrees, Army officer. But even that wasn’t enough ribbons. In YouTube videos she brags about her security clearance, her inside knowledge—”That’s still being vetted”—and the Ph.D. she’s working on. She calls herself a biographer, but biographers actually do something arduous—they write biographies. Ms. Broadwell contracted with a professional, reporter Vernon Loeb, to organize, synthesize, think and write. On Twitter, Ms. Broadwell describes herself as “Author . . . National Security Analyst; Army Vet; Women’s Rights Activist; Runner/Skier/Surfer; Wife; Mom!” On her website she noted that in her free time she is an Ironman triathelete “and a model and demonstrator for KRISS, a manufacturer of .45-caliber machine guns.” “When Paula is not on the frontlines, online, or writing lines,” she and her husband run, ski and surf together.

My goodness. All hail. This isn’t describing yourself in the best possible light, this is bragging about yourself to a degree and in a way that is actually half mad.

But it’s kind of the way people talk about themselves now. And I have to say, this is new. Not new in history but new as a fully developed and enveloping national style. You know why they loved us in Europe in World War II? I mean aside from because we won? Because they thought we were kind of strong and silent—modest, actually—like Gary Cooper in “Sergeant York.” Now we still do ratta-tat-tat, but it’s on Facebook and it’s about how great we are.

We used to worry that kids would be victims of the self-esteem movement, that constant praise would keep them from an honestly earned, and therefore stable, self-respect, and steer them toward mere conceit. Now parents have it.

The other young woman in the story, Ms. Broadwell’s apparent nemesis, felt harassed when her role became known. Jill Kelley called 911 and quickly informed the operator of her status. “You know, I don’t know if by any chance, because I’m an honorary consul general, so I have inviolability.” She suggested “diplomatic protection” might be in order. But she isn’t a diplomat, she’s a lady who gives parties and knows a lot of people. She even knows an FBI agent who opened an investigation for her because she felt harassed by anonymous emails. This really was a confusing part of the story. Just about everyone, certainly every woman, in the public eye in America receives aggressive, insulting, menacing emails. We didn’t know we could get FBI investigations opened for that! Maybe our mistake is not being honorary consuls with inviolability.

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These are just the players in the scandal of the week. Have we noticed a certain lack of modesty in our political figures? Thank goodness, therefore, for Mitt Romney, who in a conference call with donors said he got beat and beat bad, that his campaign was lacking, that his gut on the big issues was probably off, that he shouldn’t have allowed his campaign to become (in the grandiose, faux-macho lingo of campaign consultants who wish they wore fruit salad) an air war and not a ground war, and that they were smoked in get-out-the-vote. He added, with an eye to concerns larger than his own, that he wanted to help the party analyze and define what didn’t work in 2012 so it would be stronger in 2016.

Sorry. Kidding! He didn’t say that.

He said the administration gave “gifts” to interest groups, and the groups appreciated the gifts, and, people being the little automatons they are, said yes, sire, and voted for him.

In a way it was as bad as the old “47%” tape. Because it was so limited.

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Which gets us to the president. He’s looking very stern. You don’t have a problem with Susan Rice, you have a problem with me, he says, with a scowl. He talks about the fiscal cliff but not in a way that shows a real eagerness for compromise. He does not define areas of potential give, potential progress. He won, after all. He doesn’t have to.

What is needed is bigness, magnanimity. It’s not all about him, his party, it’s not all about self. It is not even all about one’s deepest political intentions. There are other ways and schedules for moving forward there.

Get the Republicans leaders on the Hill together. Suggest in subtle ways you’ll let them save face. Quietly acknowledge you weren’t the best negotiator in the world the first time ’round, and neither were they. Maybe no one was quite their best. But the nation faces a real challenge and there will be economic repercussions in mishandling it. “Let’s make a deal and let’s make it quickly. We all have to play games but not too much and not too long.”

And mean it. And deal.

This would be good for the president, good for his legacy, good for the country. This is a man who could show that in a time of crisis he and Speaker John Boehner could re-enact Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. Which is something the country would be relieved to see. “Look—it still works!”

It might take some of the bitterness, some of the long, grinding, partisan poison out of the system.

Might we see that?

Or just instead the stern face, the old soft, nebulous aggression, in the age of the outsized ego?