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The timeless art of flattery

Harriet Miers. Eddie Haskell. Your co-workers. They've all indulged in currying favor with higher-ups. But the payoff isn't always clear -- unless you live in Los Angeles or Washington, where there seems to be no such thing as inappropriate fawning.

October 21, 2005|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

MOVE over Eddie Haskell. Harriet E. Miers could teach you a thing or two about sucking up. Papers released last week by the Texas state archives show a woman who admired the boss and wasn't afraid to show it, with puppy dog cards and flowery notes in her own hand, often added to official typed correspondence.

"You are the best Governor ever -- deserving of great respect!" Miers wrote to George W. Bush in a belated card for his 51st birthday. (Which is why the puppy on the front of the card has such a hangdog look). At the bottom of the greeting card, she added, "At least for thirty days -- you are not younger than me." In a flowery thank you card, she wrote, "Hopefully Jenna and Barbara recognize that their parents are 'cool' -- as do the rest of us ... All I heard is how great you and Laura are doing ... Texas is blessed!"

Her strong words of praise did not end after her boss attained the White House (taking her with him.) This week, lawmakers released some of her recent speeches and other public remarks. As recently as June, she told White House interns what a fantastic editor the president is: "All those editing skills and you should think the president was a lawyer himself. He works so constantly." In July, she told a Washington law firm, "My admiration for the president's leadership and Mrs. Bush's leadership has been reaffirmed on virtually a daily basis."

Can flattery this blatant work?

Can you say Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers? "Boy, is she good," says business consultant Richard Brenner of Chaco Canyon Associates in Boston. The little aside in the birthday card about their age difference is particularly impressive, he says.

"With that personal, almost private connection between the two of them, she is building a secret little treehouse where they can both sit sometimes."

As simple as it may sound, currying favor is a complicated dance. It can be fraught with danger -- not just for the employee, but for the boss and the workplace. In his 2000 book, "You're Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery," Richard Stengel has a chapter called "Sucking Up to Caesar." Yes, it worked back then too.

"We like to think that the smarter a person is, the higher she ascends up the ladder of success, the less susceptible that individual is to flattery," Stengel writes. "In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. People of high self-esteem and accomplishment generally see the praise directed at them as shrewd judgment rather than flattery."

It doesn't always work, of course. And most people in positions of power like to believe they have built in, ah, baloney detectors. But no boss is entirely immune to blandishments from underlings.

"I have been a victim of false flattery and I have been a false flatterer," says Peter Guber, the former chief of Sony and Columbia studios. "Sometimes I recognized it after I've said it, or even when I've said it. I've basked in false praise."

If art lies in concealing art, unfortunately in Miers' case, says Guber, "the curtain has been pulled back." Not that he judges her poorly for her efforts. "The reality is she was trying to set an emotional tone for the relationship. I don't think that's necessarily always bad. It's a question of whether it's sincere."

Flattery and sincerity: a potent brew. For instance, Bush was a famously average student and has never pretended to be part of any intellectual elite. (In fact, he has honed his reputation as a regular guy over his years in public service.) So when former White House speechwriter David Frum wrote on his blog that he'd once heard Miers describe Bush as "the most brilliant man she'd ever met," tongues across the political spectrum were set wagging: Could she really mean it? And if she was sincere, did this reflect poorly on her judgment?

"I assume she is not sincere because if you're smart enough to be on the Supreme Court, you should be smarter than the president," says Ben Austin, who is working for Rob Reiner on his campaign for universal preschool in California.

In this day and age, perhaps the American centers of what social scientists call "ingratiatory behavior" are Hollywood and Washington, D.C., two places where flattery is not only the coin of the realm, but even when it's an obvious counterfeit, is still valuable to the recipient.

Stengel, who was a senior editor at Time magazine, writes that the caliber and pervasiveness of toadying in Washington makes the nation's capital "more like the courts of Renaissance Europe than it is to our modern era."

Austin, 36, who worked in the public affairs office of the Clinton White House and as a deputy mayor for Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, knows a thing or two about ingratiatory behavior. When he worked for Riordan, he says, they had a regular basketball game on Saturdays. "You could say the only reason I was able to keep my job in the Riordan administration is that I let Riordan beat me whenever we would play," jokes Austin, who is nearly 40 years younger than Riordan.

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