Anatomy of Congressional Narcissism

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Former congressman Anthony Weiner, who has now resigned in disgrace, took, and then transmitted, various photos of himself — either posing and flexing in gym attire, pointing to his private parts, smiling in various states of undress and sexual arousal, or in combinations of these themes.

Americans find this bizarre, largely because the vast majority of American males, at least above the age of 25, not only have not taken sexually explicit photos of themselves (much less sent them to near strangers), but have not taken any self-portraits whatsoever. Apparently Mr. Weiner believed that his position as a relatively high-profile congressman made, literally, all of him of interest to almost anyone. Someone somehow had apparently convinced the rather geeky Mr. Weiner that he was quite attractive, to the point that he assumed others would wish to join such a Narcissus in fixating at the pool of his own rather sad reflection.

Former senator and vice-presidential candidate John Edwards is terribly angry at his mistress, Rielle Hunter. She apparently, with his consent, used her film-producing expertise to make explicit tapes of the two naked and in flagrante delicto in an Indianapolis hotel room — and then carelessly lost possession of the tapes. (So much for eternal infatuation.) The details of their scripted sexual congress are of no interest; but the motivation for it is in a way.

John Edwards was once acclaimed a savvy trial lawyer, and as a high-profile politician he knew that he had to either lead an exemplary life, or ensure that there were no hard data showing that he had not. Yet he chose to put his cheap adultery on tape, and now is facing not only the specter of a prison sentence for alleged campaign-finance irregularities, but also the possible tawdriness of having his private moments ricocheted around the Internet. I say “possible” not in the sense that it might not happen, but, given the Weiner exemplar, in the sense that Edwards might not find it so tawdry.

Still, why did he do such a thing? Did his narcissism trump his political sense to the extent that he was willing to ruin his political career, humiliate his cancer-stricken wife, destroy his family unity, and even risk “John’s room” in his palatial estate for the occasional titillation of watching himself commit sex again and again, thanks to the rewind button (perhaps with friends over, as for the Super Bowl, with popcorn and beer?).

We can easily find multiple examples of these symptoms of political narcissism: The late Sen. Robert Byrd, in Josef Stalin or Saddam Hussein fashion, plastering his name and image over all sorts of West Virginia public-works projects, many of them unneeded and funded at the expense of far more important investments. Do we remember the former speaker of the House, Jim Wright, publishing a book, Reflections of a Public Man, that no one in his right mind would wish to read and then distributing it through bulk purchases using campaign funds and donations? And back in the Petronian sphere, did Rep. Mark Foley (who lectured gays on traditional morality) really believe that he had the right to inquire, in dirty-old-man fashion, about the coming-of-age sexuality of teenage boys? Did Sen. Larry Craig (who lectured Clinton on being “naughty”) think it appropriate to cruise for raunchy homosexual sex in public restrooms? How about Gov. Eliot Spitzer (who lectured Wall Street on being excessive and self-indulgent) frequenting young prostitutes?

The list of the near-unbelievable is nearly endless, and it raises an interesting question: Do narcissists gravitate to political office, or does the insular, Versailles-like nature of a Washington, an Albany, or a Sacramento turn normal men into narcissists?

I think the syndrome works out something like this — quite aside from the enormous power that our elected officials now wield, as government grows and budgets explode. A candidate gets used to seeing his picture and his name all over his campaign literature and in the media. Once he is elected, this media exposure is amplified by the lavish public subsidies he has a hand in allocating, and enhanced by a pack of “aides” and “consultants” who, for reasons of job security, must reassure the official that he is smart, dynamic, witty, youthful, attractive, and in general deserving of the sort of adulation he receives.

Add in the subsidized newsletter his office regularly sends out listing the legislator’s latest res gestae — the eponymous naming of a ten-mile stretch of federal highway or a community center — and the sense of self only magnifies. Apparently no assistant dares remind his boss that doctors do not see operating rooms named after them for brilliant brain surgery, effective professors do not lecture in eponymous classrooms, and sanitation men do not drive about in garbage trucks emblazoned with their names. In America, when an individual wants his name on a university building or above a hotel entry, he usually pays for it on his own dime. Only in state and national politics do officials believe they merit Roman-like inscriptions for simply doing their jobs.

A key force multiplier is the sudden irrelevance of money. Everything for the contemporary official is free: free air travel, free use of a car, free food and entertainment through generous expense accounts — free almost everything. That cocoon ensures that the elected official’s anxieties and worries are not those of his constituents, who despair when gas hits $4.23 a gallon, or when a half-gallon of milk costs $5 at the Stop & Shop, or when a mediocre private college can charge more than $20,000 a year for tuition, room, and board. The result is that our elected officials often make a quantum, but quite false leap: Not only do I not pay, but I should not pay for anything — given my prestige, power, influence, Weinerian chest, or Edwardsian sexual flair.

The result is usually a Greek tragedy of the Sophoclean brand: A candidate who once earnestly sought to serve his constituents first becomes an insular apparatchik, then comes to believe himself a Louis XIV sort of living deity — at each step of his apotheosis, inviting ever greater retribution from the goddess Nemesis.

The remedy? The cost-cutters in Washington should vastly trim congressional and administration staffs, public-relations budgets, free mailing, and self-aggrandizing brochures. There is absolutely no need for any living member of Congress to have his name on any public project — period. The damage wrought by term limits is not as great as the damage wrought by this new sense of royalty enjoyed by perennial incumbents. Neronian overseas junkets are redundant — we already pay billions for State Department and military officials to be the government’s frontline eyes and ears abroad.

If such anger seems puerile or irrelevant, it at least has historical support. Whether in Athens, Rome, Venice, or London, decay has usually begun when state officials behaved like monarchs. At this late hour, even symbolic resistance against the new public royalty is vital, since officials who believe they are monarchs usually spend other people’s money as if they were monarchs.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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