Monday, October 05, 2020


Here's an excerpt from a "Washington memo" by Mark Leibovich of The New York Times:
The Untraveled High Road of Humility, and a President Laid Low

Leaders in public life, and certainly in Washington, talk about ruling with iron fists and wielding levers of power while repeatedly ignoring the obvious: Fate will always be in charge.

Even the most bullheaded authorities will occasionally acknowledge this.

“Going well, I think!” President Trump tweeted late Friday....

“I think” was a slight but notable departure from pretty much everything we’ve come to expect from an embattled president who does not like to betray any uncertainty whatsoever.

... the situation offered yet another example of why politicians are advised to be humble, or act humble, if they can possibly stand it.

“The essence of our breakdown in politics is the mentality that I’m right and you’re totally wrong,” said former Senator John Danforth, Republican of Missouri. “And because I’m so sure that I’m right and you’re totally wrong, I am justified in destroying you as a person.”

The absence of humility, Mr. Danforth said, can poison any chance for a collaborative culture.

He is hardly the first to suggest this. “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic,” said the former Senator Alan Simpson, Republican of Wyoming, in a 2018 eulogy for President George Bush. It is a familiar adage around the capital, if rarely heeded.
Let's start from the beginning of this: Who in Washington ever actually says, "I rule with an iron fist"? Mitch McConnell might actually do that in the Senate, but he doesn't say he does. Not in so many words.

And while Danforth and Simpson may be correct that D.C. politicians believe they're right about everything -- I see a lot more of that on the Republican side, while Democrats are more willing to seek compromise -- that's not the same as the personal grandiosity of Trump.

But Leibovich would have us believe that all successful politicians are like that, and Trump is just like every other pol, except that they seem more capable of switching -- reluctantly! -- to humble mode.

In reality, nearly every successful politician I've observed can act humble when the circumstances demand. The humility might be fake, but they can summon it easily, in a way that Trump can't.

They can certainly do it when they're sent to the hospital. Ronald Reagan reportedly cracked so many self-deprecating jokes after he was shot that news stories were written about them.
According to TIME’s coverage of the assassination attempt, the very first thing he said to the First Lady when she arrived at the hospital was, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” a reference to a one-liner used by boxer Jack Dempsey.

The magazine compiled this list of his best reactions to the shooting and his own injuries:

> To surgeons, as he entered the operating room: “Please tell me you’re Republicans.”

> In a written note, upon coming out of anesthesia in the recovery room (paraphrasing Comedian W.C. Fields): “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
And so on. Maybe Reagan didn't really say or write all these things, but he and his handlers understood that a little humility, humor, and self-deprecation would go over well in these circumstances. Trump has so little understanding of human nature that he doesn't get that.

George W. Bush was never shot, but he made jokes after one well-publicized medical incident.
President Bush traveled along the Mississippi River today to argue that increasing international trade is one way out of the American recession, while nursing and joking about the wounds he suffered Sunday night when he fainted after choking on a pretzel....

He said today that he did not remember much about what happened, including the details of his fall.

"The next thing I know," he told a laughing crowd in this farming town in southwest Missouri, "Barney, the Scottish terrier, is wondering what the heck happened."

... this morning, aboard Air Force One, the president was clearly determined to defuse the reports with humor: he sent a bag of several pounds of pretzels to the reporters in the back of his plane, inscribed "From Potus -- chew slowly."
Even among alpha-male politicians, it's simply not normal to categorically reject humility and self-deprecation. Leibovich acknowledges that other politicians manage this and Trump doesn't, but he suggests that they do so very reluctantly, when it's more likely that they recognize the usefulness of not trying to act superior and untouchable at all times. They also seem not to have a personal need to do that -- they're secure enough in their alpha stxate to let go once in a while. By suggesting that every successful pol in Washington is more or less like Trump, Leibovich normalizes Trump's pathology.

I'm reminded of the fact that after watching hours of 1960s and 1970s sitcoms as a child, I assumed that at any job I held as an adult, I would call the head of the company "Mister" followed by his surname. (In my childhood, all companies were run by men.) In fact, from my first job onward, every top executive was known in the office by his (or her) first name. These executives were still regarded as alpha figures -- the first names worked the way first names of some celebrities work: This person is so important that in this realm the first name is sufficient for identification.

But there's one boss in America who's still "Mister" -- Mister Trump. At any company other than the Trump Organization, he'd just be "Donald," and the name would still mean "the most important person." But he can't bear to be "Donald" (even though he used to be known as "The Donald"). He can't bear to be seen in a hospital gown, the way Reagan was after he was shot. He can't bear to acknowledge that COVID laid him low. That's not normal.

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