New York Civic: Echo and Narcissus By Henry J. Stern

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Stern_HenryJ Politicians Expect Submission from 'Friends' and Reporters

In politics, as in most areas of human endeavor, people make decisions for a variety of reasons. In the course of human events, some turn out to be correct while others will be wrong, partially or entirely. Either the intended result will not be achieved, the cost will be too great, or unanticipated events will lead to consequences which will change the situation so much that the outcome, even though it was desired, will be unfavorable.

With some matters, one will be unable to tell for years, if ever, whether a decision was right or wrong. In other cases, a decision may advance the interests of one group and not be helpful to other equally worthy groups, and the intervention may or may not turn out to be in the overall public interest, or in the interest of people who are struggling to survive, establish and maintain families, and educate their children.

We are not talking about great ideological divides: socialism v. capitalism, pro-life v. pro-choice, religion v. secularism, etc. In these areas, people have different ideas as to what should happen, in many cases shaped by their own upbringing, their fear of eternal damnation, their belief in an afterlife, their social conscience and their views on public expenditures. Different ideologies and demographics help to define public opinion, which is subject to change depending on economic conditions, public events and military operations. These groups have different ideas of where the country is going, where it should be headed, and how it should get there.

As an organization, we are primarily concerned with state and local government and finance. We believe the quality of life in a city or state depends to an unexpected extent on the competence, commitment and integrity of its public officials, elected and appointed. We comment on decisions made by municipal officials, mainly mayors, and assume that their intentions are generally honorable, although many make their first priority their  own re-election and electoral advancement, promotion to higher and more publicized offices or financial enhancement.

New York Civic is a good government organization. Our goal is to promote the honest and efficient government of the City and State of New York. There are many issues that arise in the course of administering a large city. Our resources are limited and we cannot participate in all or even most of them. What we try to do is to define and illuminate issues where an apparent injustice exists, or where there is conspicuous waste of public funds and make suggestions as to how thiese wrongs can be eliminated.

Judging each issue on what we believe to be its merits leads to the situation in which we periodically, sometimes intensely, differ from people we ordinarily respect. This causes politicians some distress, because many demand total agreement from those people who they consider friends. Actually their notion of friends is more of a Facebook definition than actual friendship with an individual. The relevant comment, attributed to  President Truman, is "If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog."
People you know or know about come in many categories: We will name a few, and remember that there is considerable overlapping. There are your relatives, friends, buddies, colleagues, fellow congregants, acquaintances, contributors, supporters, socialites, celebrities whose names you know, fellow ethnics, subscribers to the white pages, other candidates' contributors lists, corporate officials, lobbyists, students, former and present lovers.

There are also negative people: enemies, rivals, bullies, those jealous of you, those who don't like your face or your race, your principles or your beliefs, your family or your friends, or anything else which gives them an excuse to reject you.

Hopefully, there are many more people in the first category than in the second. But friends and supporters are likely to be more distressed than strangers when you do not agree with them on a particular issue. Their displeasure is intensified if they themselves seek or hold public office, and believe that your dissent on an issue is an expression of disloyalty or ingratitude to them. I have learned that the more frequently you agree with some people, the more upset they are likely to be if a disagreement is uncovered or develops in a particular situation.

Politicians in particular confuse friendship and approval with loyalty on particular issues. Some are more comfortable with people who disagree with them 90 per cent of the time than those whose disagreement rate is 10 per cent.  Thinking of themselves as Caesars, they feel beset by brutes.

Just as friendship is often tested and sometimes terminated in an employer-employee relationship, it can similarly be strained in a politician-journalist relationship. If the honest writer feels a personal obligation to tell the truth, he will occasionally find himself out of step with his friend, the office holder.
Politics is a particularly narcissistic profession, the players I know, like actors or athletes, are usually often preoccupied with themselves and their own performances. If any of them are reading this, be assured that this observation does not apply to you. Self-absorption is part of the way they achieved the success they enjoy. Those people see disagreement on an issue as a personal affront, equivalent to betrayal by a friend. They think of the time they spent with you as having been wasted, even if you thought they were being amused, and that you were doing them a favor by listening to their self-praise and tales of how they outwitted others. To many players, a friend is a listener.

Ego is enhanced by riches. Great wealth, or even comfortable circumstances, tend to reinforce anyone's belief that they are better than other people. Just as clever people tend to judge others by their wit, paying less attention to their judgment; rich people judge others by their pocketbooks. This is more tolerable when the rich have earned their fortunes, but if their money is inherited, acquired through marriage, or stolen, the arrogance of wealth is particularly offensive.

The degree of self-involvement and adulation varies widely from person to person, and I do not wish to condemn the class of which I am proud to be a member. It is also true that over the long run the public sees through the phonies, although they may have through seniority, gerrymandering and intimidation climbed into positions in which they are relatively secure. Life is not particularly easy for the truth seeker. Then again, why should it be?

You may have noted that we have named no individuals or particular issues in this article. That is intentional. Our purpose is not to single out people or specific situations, but to draw attention to a condition in which people's professional judgments are modified or remain unexpressed because of their desire not to offend a source, a patron or a friend, and not to be excluded from what appears to be a charmed circle. The situation is probably worse in Washington, D.C., where politics is the principal business, and social acceptance is a function of presumed importance and the possibility of advancement to even greater glory.

The lessons we have drawn from recurring experiences with the pillars of society are relatively simple, and have been stated over the centuries by wiser people than we. Here are a few:

"Place not your trust in princes." Rule 26-P, derived from Psalm 146, verse 3. "Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation." Occasionally mistakenly attributed to Niccolo Machiavelli, author of "The Prince" (1513). In fact, his work is a handbook for princes.

"Be kind to man and beast." Rule 19. "Oh be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody's mother." A parody of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" by John Philip Sousa (1897).

"Gratitude is for favors yet to be received." Rule 35. Senator Robert F. Wagner told it to his son, Mayor Wagner, who told it to his son, Deputy Mayor Wagner, who told it to me. A related saying on the subject of patronage is that every job you fill gets you nine enemies and one ingrate.

"I am His Highness' dog at Kew. Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?" By Alexander Pope, from his "Epigram, engraved on the Collar of a Dog, which I gave to his Royal Highness" (Frederick, Prince of Wales).

Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct email to him at StarQuest@NYCivic.org. Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic.  

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eHeziNew York Civic: Echo and Narcissus By Henry J. Stern

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