From the White
House to the schoolhouse to the George Washington Bridge.
Sometimes the most obvious
thing is the most unnoticed. I find myself thinking this week about the
destructive force of selfishness in our political life. This common failing is
the source of such woe! Politicians call themselves public servants, so they
should be expected to be less selfish than the average Joe; their views and
actions should be assumed to be more keenly directed toward the broad public good.
But no one expects that of politicians anymore, and they know it and use the
knowledge to justify being even worse than they'd normally be. “If I have the
name, I might as well have the game.”
They are the
locus of selfishness in the modern world.Chris
Christie’s problem isn't that he's a bully, it's that he's selfish. Barack
Obama isn't stupid and therefore the maker of mayhem, he's selfish.
There isn't a
staffer on the Hill who won't tell you 90% of members are driven by their own
needs, wants and interests, not America's. The former defense secretary, Bob
Gates, has written a whole book about it, and the passages in which he speaks
most plainly read like a cry from the heart. The chaplain of the Senate, Barry
Black, made news a few months ago because he'd taken to praying that the
character of our representatives be improved. “Save us from the madness,” he
prayed one morning last October. “We acknowledge our transgressions, our
shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness.” The single most memorable thing I
ever heard from a Wall Streeter was from one of its great men, who blandly
explained to me one day why certain wealthy individuals were taking an action
that was both greedy and personally inconvenient to them. “Everyone wants
more,” he said, not in a castigating way but as one explains certain essentials
to a child.
public life have become more grasping, and less embarrassed by it. But the odd
thing, the destabilizing thing as you think about it, is that we're in a
crisis. We've been in it since at least 2008 and the crash, and the wars. We
are in unprecedented trouble. Citizens know this. It's why they buy guns. They
see unfixable America around them, they think it's all going to fall apart. In
Washington (and New York) they huff and puff their disapproval: Those Americans
with their guns, they're causing a lot of trouble. But Americans think they're
in trouble because their leaders are too selfish to face challenges that will
do us in.
striking is that in a crisis, you don't expect business as usual. You expect
something better from leaders, you expect them to try to meet the moment.
Mr. Christie is
a great talent, a political figure of real and natural gifts. What has
jeopardized his position is not that he's gruff, in-your-face, insistent – a
bully. It's that he's been selfish. In 2012 he was given a star role, keynote
speaker at the GOP national convention. His speech was strong, funny and ran
about 2,340 words. But it took around 2,000 of them before he got to a guy
named Romney. Everything else was “The greatest lesson that mom ever taught me
… When I came into office … I have an answer.” The GOP nominee needed a boost
from blue-state man, but there wasn't much in it for blue-state man. He'd only
get Republican cooties on him. So he played it like a vanity production and
made a speech about himself.
That wasn't a
major sin – it's only politics, not policy. But it fit in with his effusive
embrace of Mr. Obama in the days before the 2012 election. Any governor would
show strategic warmth for a president in charge of ladling out federal money
after disaster. But Jersey was about to re-elect president Obama by nearly 18
points, and Mr. Christie wanted to win over Democrats when he ran the next
He was already
going to win big. But he had to win bigger, had to have more.
Again, not much
of a sin. But when Bridgegate came, it seemed to fit the pattern – he'll ding
you when he doesn't have to, even if it makes local citizens cry, to gain an
advantage, to get more. Whoever made the call, selfishness is at the heart of
increasing sense in our political life that in both parties politicians call
themselves public servants but act like bosses who think the voters work for
them. Physicians who routinely help the needy and the uninsured do not call
themselves servants. They get to be called the 1%. Politicians who jerk around
doctors, nurses and health systems call themselves servants, when of course
they look more like little kings and queens instructing the grudging peasants
in how to arrange their affairs.
Which gets us,
inevitably, to the King of I, who unselfconsciously claims ownership
of . . . everything. “My military,” “my White House,” “my
cabinet,” “my secretary.” The president does first person singular more than
Mr. Christie does. But his actions are so much more consequential, because
they're national and because they play out in the area of policy.
health-insurance reform had to be breathtaking, mind-bending, historic. It had
to be a Democratic Party initiative only. It required a few major lies to gain
passage, but what the heck.
political selfishness that blew up the American health-care system. And it's
the public, in this and other messes, that's left holding the bag. But as
government gets bigger the bag gets bigger, and people will get tired of
carrying it. They're already tired.
I close with
the selfishness story of the week, the stunning New York Post expose on Public
School 106 in Far Rockaway, a neighborhood in the borough of Queens. The grade
school is a poster child for the indifference of those who are supposed to be
helping the country. There are no gym or art classes, the Post's Susan Edelman
reported. The library is a junk room; the nurse's office lacks essentials;
there are no math or reading books for the Common Core curriculum. Kids are
left to watch movies. Kindergartners are shunted off to dilapidated trailers.
The principal, Marcella Sills, often doesn't show up for work, or swans in near
the end of the day. School staff were afraid to speak up because they feared
retribution from Ms. Sills or the teachers union.
When the Post
broke the story, the city's Department of Education sent an inspector. The
principal actually showed up early that day. The school took delivery of some
books. Everyone was in high spin mode.
The union will
look to the union's interests, Ms. Sills will no doubt see to hers, the new
city administration will try to limit embarrassment, handle the fallout and
change the subject. But you couldn't read the stories without thinking: Who's
looking out for the kids? And what's happening to us?
will write of our era, and to history the biggest scandal will be the thing we
all accepted in our leaders, chronic and endemic selfishness. History will be
hard on us for that.
*Z: Can any of you disagree with this? What are your thoughts?