THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH writing a steamy novel or two. There is, however, something really weird about writing a steamy novel or two and then thinking you’re the best guy to defeat an incumbent GOP senator in a state that hosts Jerry Falwell’s operations down in Lynchburg. After all, you don’t want to end up like the ‘Wreck of the Old 97’:
It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville,
It was lying on a three-mile grade,
It was on that grade that he lost his air brakes,
And you see what a jump that she made.
He was going down the grade making 90 miles an hour,
When his whistle began to scream,
He was found in that wreck with his hand on the throttle,
He was scalded to death by the steam.
Imagine if Jim Webb had done something mildly intelligent like calling up Howard Dean and saying, “Hey, I’m thinking about running for senator and thought maybe a thing I wrote in a steamy novel about a boy sticking his penis in a man’s mouth might be a problem. Whadya think?”
But Jim Webb probably didn’t check with anyone because, in his view, he was clearly the man for the job and if any hassles came up he figured he could just spin his way out of them just as most major figures do these days.
There’s just one little problem. This story isn’t just about Jim Webb, it’s also about the Democratic Party which is within inches of taking the Senate, and it is ultimately about America which is suffering under its most repressively rightwing government in history. Maybe it won’t matter at all, but it would be too bad to lose the whole Senate thanks because of a poorly placed blow job.
A normal reaction would have been to make a choice: both respectable. Either you write steamy novels or you run as the Democratic candidate for Senate in Jerry Falwell’s turf. You don’t do both not because you don’t think in the best of all worlds you should be able to, but because in the year 2006 in the Commonwealth of Virginia you know you’re just asking for trouble.
Yet an increasing number of leaders in America don’t have such normal reactions because their narcissism has long passed the point of individual character, spilling over into the lives of their friends, their allies, and their constituencies. They make everyone around them hostages on their ego trips.
This unconsciousness of, or indifference to, the effect of one’s acts on others is an increasingly familiar phenomenon. George Bush is, of course, a prime example with a history of making others suffer for his ambtions as far back as his teen years when he and his buddies would blow up frogs with firecrackers and as recently as the last soldiers and civilians to die in Iraq.
Then we have Representative Marc Foley who, even as he was chasing male pages, was parading as a leading opponent of child pornography and serving as chair of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children. His victims now include some of his own colleagues in tight election races.
Then we have Jane Fernandes, just dumped as the new head of Gallaudet University, who despite massive opposition from students, alumni and 80% of the faculty, put Gallaudet through weeks of turmoil because she saw the struggle as primarily a personal one she had to win to prove herself.
And let’s not forget Hillary Clinton whose ego is so uncontrolled she is planning to run for president knowing full well that she carries past baggage explosive enough that the TSA should ban her from ever flying.
We are not talking mere ambition here or even the ordinary narcissism of a pol. We are speaking of people who are supremely incapable of understanding or respecting the impact of their own behavior and faults on others.
I first noticed a jump in this sort of behavior in the 1990s with a number of non-profit executive directors who seemed bizarrely unconcerned with the consequences to the organization of their egos and arrogance. They projected an image of great leadership but were in fact sinking their own ship.
The problem seemed to stem in part from the diaspora of the new robber baron ethic promulgated by major business schools. The skills of management were often seen as independent of, and in isolation from, whatever was being managed. If you had these skills you could even be the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra without ever really understanding music since running an orchestra was, after all, just another management problem.
Aside from the illogic of such an approach, it gave vastly more importance to the dominating personality and manic drive of those in charge than to their competence in the matters at hand or to their social intelligence. It easily became more like theater than actual work. The ‘great’ manager performed a role rather than actually carrying it out.
In many cases, things worked fine because competence was also there even if deemed of lesser importance. But increasingly, those who were good at manipulating people, situations, and language without either the competence or the ability to work in an effective way with others were the ones who made it to the top. Their pathological narcissism and absence of shame about it was too often mistaken for strong leadership.
It also doesn’t help that there are now 300 million of us. Ambition has a harder climb and those who succeed often do so – like the viper and the shark – for reasons that are not all that pleasant to contemplate.
And it is true that rooted power – power that comes out of place, tradition, or community – has largely lost its influence and with it the idea of success being dependent upon something other than oneself. Certainly in politics, we seem to place little value on either experience or service.
But, whatever the reasons, we are besotted by those whose idea of leadership is defined by their own ambitions with little reference to, or concern about, the well-being or desires of those around them.
A psychiatrist once suggested to me that a good way to diagnose pathology in someone is to count the bodies that they leave behind. Which is to say that healthy people don’t leave a trail of victims as they go through life. On the other hand, the disordered, no matter how convincing their claim to normalcy, produce a wake that tells a different story. In no small part, this is because their definition of progress and success too often stops with themselves. Others are just so many hostages of their fantasies. Which would be all right if it were just a steamy novel, but unfortunately it’s real life.