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Corn: Political leaders play up their celebrity status

POSTED: July 2, 2010 1:00 a.m.

This is certainly not the first age to indulge in vanity, but the height of spectacle to which we have taken it is surely unique. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise in a time when the most famous and revered public figures are popular entertainers. Legions of mediocre talents in drama, comedy, plainsong and simple chitchat are trotted out constantly to fill the air time between advertisements. Such performers have never been known for their modesty, restraint or moral rectitude, yet they have never been immolated more than they are now.

Show business professionals may be excused for their vanity, however when the cult of celebrity begins to invade all realms of a culture, including politics, then it has clearly gone too far. Anxiety over this trend was manifest in the horror many felt while watching the governor of South Carolina implode his own presidential ambitions on national television. Set adrift from reality by his own conceit, he apparently believed that the country would admire his desire for adulterous romance and forget the callous betrayal of his wife and four sons on Father's Day, when he used state property to fly over two continents to meet his mistress.

While a governor may wish to be the leading man in a Hollywood romance, it seems a soldier's fantasy is to play Patton, the movie version, not the real commander. The military has long been a bastion for male mirror-gazing. In contrast to that weakness, Ulysses S. Grant was nothing if not a practical man of war. He disapproved of officers who paid too much attention to their personal appearance, deriding those who "wear all the uniform the law allows." His chief adversary, Gen. Robert E. Lee, was a most pompous example.

During the 19th century, ostentation in the officer corps might have been a harmless vice, but today it has the potential to change the dynamics of international affairs. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's desire to project an image of himself as an acetic warrior, morally superior to his civilian masters, obviously overrode any responsibility he felt to attend to the mission of occupying and pacifying Afghanistan. It seems that our age does not value healthy individualism but demands total self-absorption.

It is easy to see why, for it is often more profitable to put the superficial ahead of the substantive. Witness Sarah Palin's resignation from office to pursue a career as a professional celebrity. It was a predictable choice from a woman steeped in the new ethos of self-promotion. Yet, it is worth remembering that this is quite the opposite of our long-honored tradition of individual development; the cultivation of the self through education, apprenticeship and experience.

Perhaps the worst political narcissist of recent note, however, was the late Sen. Robert Byrd, who clung to power years after his physical and mental faculties had deteriorated. He seemed to believe that longevity in the cathedral of our republic might absolve him of his terrible judgment, which led him to join the Ku Klux Klan and make a career of upholding racial apartheid in the South. More recently he had taken to flouting his senatorial authority, mistaking his withered physique for the embodiment of the constitution as he waved that document in the face of his juniors.

It is true he had repudiated his most hateful intentions and actions long ago, but anyone who supported such a monstrous injustice while in authority ought to have been thankful for Americans' forgiving nature and exited public life with humility and speed. Instead he made himself ridiculous by slurring through speeches and lording his seniority over those younger and more capable, finally dying in office.

All this is not to say that vainglory in matters of state is entirely useless. A penchant for flamboyance and bravado often enhances one's authority and inspires others to better efforts through a kind of positive envy. Yet when the cult of personality overwhelms all thought of actual governance, it becomes destructive.

It is not only a problem of the state, for virtually everyone is involved in a continual public relations campaign, whether in professional life through websites like LinkedIn or on social networks such as Facebook.

The fact is we would likely be better off if we spent less time involved with the manufactured personalities of the mass media, less time spinning our own narratives to an uncaring public and gave more energy to deepening our existing relations with our friends, neighbors, colleagues and family. There is no substitute for the comfort of community. Mutual affection and respect are the rewards for sustained attention to the individuals around us and these relationships have the benefit of being real.

Perhaps with fewer public personalities to compete with and fewer eager spectators to please, those in positions of authority and responsibility would pose and posture a bit less, and put more effort into matters of genuine concern. We may not see that day soon, but it is worth imagining.

Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and a Forsyth County resident. His column appears biweekly on Fridays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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