Have you noticed that the official responses to these occurrences have been similar? The first reaction is to plead ignorance. President Obama and many of his top appointees are never tipped off about potential problems. They are always in the dark and learn about misconduct when they read about it in newspapers.
That excuse is very hard to believe. Back in the mid-1990s when I was running the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (which included thirty-five separate facilities and 9,000 employees), I made it clear to the Inspector General and senior staff that if a problem was brewing or bad news was on the horizon, I wanted a heads-up. If I learned about employee misconduct from the media, heads rolled in the agency.
The other response has been to downplay headline-making revelations as nothing more than “inappropriate” behavior. Not “shocking” or “monstrous” or “criminal” or “wicked” or “shameful” or “unpardonable” or God forbid, “immoral” behavior.
As a New Yorker, I am accustomed to frequent government and political exposés. In recent years, just on the state level, over thirty elected officials have been convicted of a crime, or have been indicted, or censured or driven from office. (Five in the past month.)
Last week, for instance, long-time Brooklyn power-broker, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, resigned – before being expelled – from the state legislature after the release of a damning special investigator’s report that concluded Lopez, for many years, had “inappropriately” sexually harassed female interns who worked in his office.
The disgraced Lopez did not apologize, nor did he fade into anonymity because he was ashamed of his behavior. Instead he announced he will run for a seat on the New York City Council this fall.
Then there is the case of former Congressman Anthony Weiner whose district I lived in for several years.
Weiner e-mailed lewd photographs of himself to young female strangers and after it became public, denied the charge and blamed a hacker. When the tabloids proved otherwise, Weiner fessed up to “inappropriate” behavior and agreed to resign his seat only after Nancy Pelosi and other Congressional heavies insisted.
Fast-forward two years, and Weiner who believes his disgraceful behavior is old news is now running for Mayor of New York.
The Weiner the world awaited?
What makes these and so many other political lowlifes believe they are indispensible and that nothing they ever do will be led against them in the long run?
First and foremost, they are narcissists. They have grandiose views of their talents, excessive interest in themselves, a craving for attention and admiration, and a consciousness of superiority.
This type of person, as social philosopher Christopher Lasch once observed, depends on others “to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience. . . .For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individual saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped to his own design.” Success for these narcissists “consists of nothing more substantial than a wish to be vastly admired; not for one’s accomplishments, but simply for oneself, uncritically and without reservation.”
In a 9,000 word article published in the April 10, 2011 issue of New York Times magazine, Weiner claimed he was a “victim” of his narcissist personality because he needed attention 24/7. “Well, ok,” he told the Times, “now at 2 o’clock in the morning, I can come home from playing hockey and I can find someone saying [on Twitter or Facebook] ‘Oh that was great’ … So somewhere in there it got to a place where I was trying to engage people on nothing about being a politician. Or sometimes it would start out about politics and then, ‘You’re a great guy.’ ‘Oh, thanks, you are great, too.’ ‘I think you’re handsome.’ ‘Oh, that’s great.’ … “To me it was just another way to feel this notion that I want to be liked and admired.”
Such politicians also believe they should not be judged by their private misconduct, but by their self-proclaimed great public deeds. In other words, they subscribe to the Bill Clinton school of ethics in which character doesn’t matter.
For centuries, character – “the actualization of the human potential for excellence,” in the old scholastic formula – was seen as the prerequisite for anyone interested in public service. Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, the Renaissance humanists, and the American Founders all agreed that character matters; that it is essential for public officials to cultivate the moral virtues of justice, courage, honesty, patience, and temperance. For them, a leader with character is one who can keep appetites under control in both public and private life.
Be it in Washington or New York, the primary reason why so many immoral or disgraceful acts are now dismissed as merely “inappropriate” is that too many public officials are pragmatic to the point of amorality. Their sole standard is political expediency. They lack a moral center, a reference point, in their pursuit of political power and personal indulgence.
If we’re going to talk about “inappropriate,” sooner or later we have to decide what’s “appropriate.” And that’s not something that can be left to the self-interest of public figures or the short attention span of the media.