A recent juxtaposition of statements made by each of the last two presidents at defining moments of their presidencies is revealing but not surprising. It highlights the death of humility in public life, and perhaps more.
On December 14, 2003, George W. Bush announced to the nation the capture of the brutal Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. He said, in pertinent part (and note the language in bold): “The success of yesterday’s mission is a tribute to our men and women now serving in Iraq. The operation was based on the superb work of intelligence analysts who found the Dictator’s footprints in a vast country. The operation was carried out with skill and precision by a brave fighting force. Our servicemen and women and our coalition allies have faced many dangers in the hunt for members of the fallen regime, and in their effort to bring hope and freedom to the Iraqi people. Their work continues, and so do the risks. Today, on behalf of the nation, I thank the members of our Armed Forces and I congratulate them.”
Now contrast that with Barack Obama’s statement upon the killing of Osama bin Laden, announced on May 1, 2011: “And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as I continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network. Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by my intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. Imet repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that I had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.”
If writing two autobiographies before actually accomplishing anything doesn’t do it, Obama here crosses the line that separates puffery from pathology. He did everything but claim to have personally hunted down bin Laden and killed him with his own hands, while simultaneously piloting the helicopter, smoking a cigarette and draining a three-point jump shot.
Certainly, some will speculate as to the mindset of a braggart who is clearly oblivious to how he sounds, assuming he doesn’t himself believe his own hype. Perhaps it stems from his disrupted childhood, growing up with a permanently-absent father and a frequently-absent mother that necessitates this self-flattery. Perhaps it is an unconscious recognition of the dearth of his personal resume, notwithstanding (or maybe the proximate cause of) his election to the presidency. One of my colleagues long ago pointed out Obama’s stubborn resistance to using a railing while descending steps, as if he is immune from mishaps – as if he can’t possibly fall. (Apparently he did stumble once, video suppressed.)
And there’s this, President Obama’s statement last week endorsing homosexual marriage: “At a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Forget the fact that he’s changed his position several times – pro-same sex marriage in the 1990’s, anti- in the 2000’s, pro- again in the 2010’s – without being seriously questioned about his changes (why was he against it? Why was he for it? What moral compass guides him? Is it crass politics – one wag called it less “evolution” on Obama’s part and more “intelligent design,” an attempt to revive his flagging base. What is it?) Forget the fact that he should have to explain why he would be opposed to two adult brothers marrying, two sisters, a brother and sister, a parent and a child, or why he would oppose polygamy or polyandry – assuming, of course, that the people were all in love and wanted to build a strong family. Forget all that, and ponder this: how is it possible to squeeze four first-person pronouns in one sentence, even conceding his lack of eloquence without a teleprompter?!
Chazal spoke quite harshly about arrogance, in every person but certainly in a leader for whom it invariably leads to failures. “A haughty heart is an abomination of G-d” (Mishlei 16:5). Self-aggrandizement is a sign of weakness and insecurity, not strength. It is unbecoming, and, as is well known, “pride precedes destruction and arrogance comes before failure” (Mishlei 16:18). Rav Hirsch explains that haughty people become overconfident; perhaps they genuinely believe they can control the tides and cool the planet. How will Obama react to defeat – further tear apart the country? Complain bitterly about race and bias? Tie up the country in litigation? He has been remarkably lacking in class, almost unheard of in presidential politics.
The haughty are compared to idolaters and sexual predators (Sotah 4b) and find it difficult to praise others (Zohar). “One coin in a bottle rattles; the bottle filled with coins makes no sound” (Bava Metzia 85b). One whose true virtues are minimal cannot but speak of them at length; a person of genuine greatness sees no need to refer to himself or his achievements. They speak for themselves.
It was Pat Riley who characterized arrogance as “the disease of me,” marked by chronic feelings of under-appreciation and a concomitant focus on the self, and a resentment of the competence and success of others. Bad midot are worse than bad policies, and although only a fool looks to any politician to provide examples of good midot, politicians can have an extraordinary effect on the public culture, for good and for bad. Man’s finest virtue, Rav Moshe ibn Ezra stated, is that of which he is unaware.
Leadership often carries with its feelings of superiority, especially when the leader makes decisions that affect millions of people. It is an occupational hazard. The better ones conceal it under a veneer of humility and graciousness. It makes them personally tolerable, even if their policies are repugnant and risible. Someone should inform the President of this basic truth.