ometimes the most obvious thing is the most unnoticed. I find myself thinking this week about the destructive force of selfishness in our political life. This common failing is the source of such woe! Politicians call themselves public servants, so they should be expected to be less selfish than the average Joe ; their views and actions should be assumed to be more keenly directed toward the broad public good. But no one expects that of politicians anymore, and they know it and use the knowledge to justify being even worse than they’d normally be. “If I have the name, I might as well have the game.”
They are the locus of selfishness in the modern world.
Chris Christie’s problem isn’t that he’s a bully, it’s that he’s selfish. Barack Obama isn’t stupid and therefore the maker of mayhem, he’s selfish.
There isn’t a staffer on the Hill who won’t tell you 90% of members are driven by their own needs, wants and interests, not America’s. The former defense secretary, Bob Gates, has written a whole book about it, and the passages in which he speaks most plainly read like a cry from the heart. The chaplain of the Senate, Barry Black, made news a few months ago because he’d taken to praying that the character of our representatives be improved. “Save us from the madness,” he prayed one morning last October. “We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness.” The single most memorable thing I ever heard from a Wall Streeter was from one of its great men, who blandly explained to me one day why certain wealthy individuals were taking an action that was both greedy and personally inconvenient to them. “Everyone wants more,” he said, not in a castigating way but as one explains certain essentials to a child.
People in public life have become more grasping, and less embarrassed by it. But the odd thing, the destabilizing thing as you think about it, is that we’re in a crisis. We’ve been in it since at least 2008 and the crash, and the wars. We are in unprecedented trouble. Citizens know this. It’s why they buy guns. They see unfixable America around them, they think it’s all going to fall apart. In Washington (and New York) they huff and puff their disapproval: Those Americans with their guns, they’re causing a lot of trouble. But Americans think they’re in trouble because their leaders are too selfish to face challenges that will do us in.
What’s most striking is that in a crisis, you don’t expect business as usual. You expect something better from leaders, you expect them to try to meet the moment.
* * *
Mr. Christie is a great talent, a political figure of real and natural gifts. What has jeopardized his position is not that he’s gruff, in-your-face, insistent—a bully. It’s that he’s been selfish. In 2012 he was given a star role, keynote speaker at the GOP national convention. His speech was strong, funny and ran about 2,340 words. But it took around 2,000 of them before he got to a guy named Romney. Everything else was “The greatest lesson that mom ever taught me . . . When I came into office . . . I have an answer.” The GOP nominee needed a boost from blue-state man, but there wasn’t much in it for blue-state man. He’d only get Republican cooties on him. So he played it like a vanity production and made a speech about himself.
That wasn’t a major sin—it’s only politics, not policy. But it fit in with his effusive embrace of Mr. Obama in the days before the 2012 election. Any governor would show strategic warmth for a president in charge of ladling out federal money after disaster. But Jersey was about to re-elect president Obama by nearly 18 points, and Mr. Christie wanted to win over Democrats when he ran the next year.
He was already going to win big. But he had to win bigger, had to have more.
Again, not much of a sin. But when Bridgegate came, it seemed to fit the pattern—he’ll ding you when he doesn’t have to, even if it makes local citizens cry, to gain an advantage, to get more. Whoever made the call, selfishness is at the heart of the scandal.
* * *
There’s an increasing sense in our political life that in both parties politicians call themselves public servants but act like bosses who think the voters work for them. Physicians who routinely help the needy and the uninsured do not call themselves servants. They get to be called the 1%. Politicians who jerk around doctors, nurses and health systems call themselves servants, when of course they look more like little kings and queens instructing the grudging peasants in how to arrange their affairs.
Which gets us, inevitably, to the King of I, who unselfconsciously claims ownership of . . . everything. “My military,” “my White House,” “my cabinet,” “my secretary.” The president does first person singular more than Mr. Christie does. But his actions are so much more consequential, because they’re national and because they play out in the area of policy.
The president’s health-insurance reform had to be breathtaking, mind-bending, historic. It had to be a Democratic Party initiative only. It required a few major lies to gain passage, but what the heck.
It was political selfishness that blew up the American health-care system. And it’s the public, in this and other messes, that’s left holding the bag. But as government gets bigger the bag gets bigger, and people will get tired of carrying it. They’re already tired.
I close with the selfishness story of the week, the stunning New York Post expose on Public School 106 in Far Rockaway, a neighborhood in the borough of Queens. The grade school is a poster child for the indifference of those who are supposed to be helping the country. There are no gym or art classes, the Post’s Susan Edelman reported. The library is a junk room; the nurse’s office lacks essentials; there are no math or reading books for the Common Core curriculum. Kids are left to watch movies. Kindergartners are shunted off to dilapidated trailers. The principal, Marcella Sills, often doesn’t show up for work, or swans in near the end of the day. School staff were afraid to speak up because they feared retribution from Ms. Sills or the teachers union.
When the Post broke the story, the city’s Department of Education sent an inspector. The principal actually showed up early that day. The school took delivery of some books. Everyone was in high spin mode.
The union will look to the union’s interests, Ms. Sills will no doubt see to hers, the new city administration will try to limit embarrassment, handle the fallout and change the subject. But you couldn’t read the stories without thinking: Who’s looking out for the kids? And what’s happening to us?
Someday history will write of our era, and to history the biggest scandal will be the thing we all accepted in our leaders, chronic and endemic selfishness. History will be hard on us for that.