We all know people to whom that old joke can apply. And such people are amusing, entertaining, and sometimes even thoughtful or great teachers. But Bill Kristol rightly asks whether that quality of always being "self-referential" ought to be indulged in a President.
Obama is certainly not the first modern president to be overly-impressed with himself and his "journey." Bill Clinton famously peppered his speeches with a plethora of "me"s and "I"s--but his stories about himself were so self-serving (and sometimes, clearly, invented) that people tended to be more amused than moved by him. He could work a room like nobody’s business if it were filled with folks inclined to be unreflective . . . but after awhile, even the dullest wit had to concede that his stories had begun to grow stale and to fill the air with the powerful odor of BS. He now stands as a kind of cartoon monument to himself. Clinton always had ready acolytes who would rush to his defense, of course. But the more intelligent among them always knew what they were about and, in their better moments, exhibited some shame in it. They were selling out for the sake of their favored policy prescriptions and they were willing to deal with a minor little devil like Clinton for the sake of something they regarded as higher than themselves. What were a few sacrificial little interns and "trailer park" women to that? What of it if the guy liked to talk about himself and, in so doing, sent a spark of thrill up the legs of TV talking heads? It was part of the game of selling their wares and, for awhile, it seemed to work.
But Barack Obama is a different sort of narcissist. He isn’t of that cheap "trailer park" variety--the kind who gets so swept up in trying to please an adoring public that he tries to become the guy he’s invented . . . Barack Obama is much more clever. He is the thinking man’s narcissist--and he would much rather have you become the kind of public that he thinks he deserves than to bend himself to suit you. Obama can weave a tale so lofty that a mere recounting of his mother waking him up early as a child seems the whispering of prophecy from an angel at dawn near the shoulder of a future American redeemer. The personal relationship he describes himself as having with the Constitution and American principles seems to speak less of their greatness than of his potential. They are great, it seems, mainly because of what they have meant to him and what they have allowed him to become. It all begs the question, "What if he had failed?" Would their majesty have been diminished in that failure or would he, Barack Obama, have been the sole proprietor of it? As Kristol notes, he seems to imagine that he infuses the office of the presidency with some special power of bargaining and, even, rationality that the office itself cannot hope to possess. The power of the presidency does not seem to be vested in him--at least by his lights--but, rather, it exists because of him.
Whether sophisticated or bumbling and comedic, this level of self-regard when exhibited in the presidency is something that should not escape notice. It may be that the sophisticated version will be able to carry on unnoticed for a longer time and with less obvious tragic consequences. But pride really does seem to "goeth" before a fall. The tragedy of Bill Clinton--though suffered for a time by the nation--has receded comfortably into a kind of tragi-comedy and the effects it produced are felt most keenly, I think, by those who most deserve them. In Barack Obama’s case, if tragedy follows on the heels of this pride, I think it may be a deeper and more engaging kind of tragedy for the nation as a whole. For it is we who are bending toward his story and not his story that is bending toward us.