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Getting With the Program

Is This a Political Convention or a Meeting of Narcissists Anonymous?

August 13, 2000|David Brooks | David Brooks is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. He is the author of "Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There."

WASHINGTON — For more than two centuries, millions of Jews have tried to fit into the American mainstream by assimilating. Yet, after all that effort, the first Jew to be named to a major presidential ticket turns out to be Orthodox. Not only that, the Democratic Party leaders who embraced Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman last week made it perfectly clear that he was chosen in part because of his orthodox beliefs. Warren Christopher, who managed the selection process for Vice President Al Gore, called Lieberman "a symbol of rectitude" and Lieberman's yarmulke is the symbol of that symbol. Democratic officials have repeated the stories of how Lieberman walks home from work on Friday nights so he won't violate the Sabbath. Gore gave ABC News a line-by-line recitation of the prayer he said with Lieberman during their phone call. Nor have the two candidates stinted when it comes to quoting scripture over the past few days. Lieberman mentioned God 12 times in their first joint appearance, which has to be some kind of record for a Democratic pol.

That's the great thing about elections: You never know beforehand which issues are going to dominate a race. But over the past two weeks it's become clear that this campaign is going to be steeped in religion and fought out over which party can ennoble the national character. When Texas Gov. George W. Bush says Jesus is his most important political philosopher, and when Gore picks an orthodox believer as his running mate, they are both offering faith as an antidote to scandal, trash culture and the corruptions of affluence.

And yet, while both campaigns preach the dignity of the pulpit, they do it while using the language of the TV studio. They are enmeshed in the cultural argot they say they are trying to rise above. The campaigns are running sentimental conventions in order to urge us to rise above self-indulgent sentimentality. The candidates call on us to renounce selfishness and serve causes larger than ourselves, and yet, like all political campaigns these days, their speeches are stuffed with self-worship.

In other words, this whole campaign is beginning to look like an unsuccessful meeting of Narcissists Anonymous: Self-promoting leaders trying to promote themselves by summoning the armies of selflessness.

This isn't rank hypocrisy. This is an accurate reflection of where the country is now, and especially where the baby boomer center of gravity is now. The boomers are notoriously narcissistic, yet trying to rise above narcissism. This is a fat and happy country that fears it is getting too fat and happy. This is a country with nice kitchens and nice lawns, that somehow senses it should be paying attention to more important things. In short, many Americans are absorbed by the anxiety that they might be too self-absorbed.

Look at how the tortured boomer soul was revealed at Bush's convention. On the one hand, Bush forcefully and sincerely made the case that the boomers have been lulled by peace and prosperity and have, so far, squandered their chance to contribute to their country's greatness. He started by recalling the heroism of the World War II generation, the "generation of Americans who stormed the beaches, liberated concentration camps and delivered us from evil." That was the generation from which much was asked, he suggested. But then Bush pivoted and pointed out that the boomer generation is the generation to which much was given. "This generation," he said, "was given the gift of the best education in American history."

"Our current president embodied the potential of a generation," he continued. "So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill. But, in the end, to what end?" President Bill Clinton has squandered his gifts, Bush answered. All that potential was directed toward selfish ends.

Bush then called on the country to devote itself to service to others. America's greatness, he said in Philadelphia, was not based on money or military might "but in small unnumbered acts of caring and courage and self-denial." Government should encourage those acts. The convention was chock-a-block with uplifting stories of charity and caring.

But somehow the self-denial was missing. On the contrary, the whole thing was a mammoth testimonial to Bush's good heart. The Republican Party as an entity was scarcely mentioned. The congressional Republicans were largely ignored. The convention was about Bush's wonderful self--four days of celebration.

The Democratic campaign has a similar tension. Lieberman's life is dedicated to Jewish law, which is eternal and transcendent. He has crusaded against sleaze and morally corrosive popular culture.

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