The Right Opinion

The I's Have It

An epidemic of egomania strikes America's civilian and military leadership.

By Peggy Noonan · Nov. 17, 2012

We are becoming a conceited nitwit society, pushy and self-aggrandizing. No one is ashamed to brag now. And show off. They think it heightens them. They think it's good for business.

It used to be that if you were big, you'd never tell people how big you were because that would be kind of classless, and small. In fact it would be a proof of smallness.

So don't be showy. The big are modest.


There is the issue – small but indicative of something larger – of how members of the U.S. military present themselves, and the awe they consciously encourage in the public and among the political class. The other day on his Daily Beast blog, Andrew Sullivan posted a letter from a reader noting the way officers are now given and relentlessly wear on their dress uniforms ribbons, markers and awards for pretty much everything they do – what used to be called fruit salad. Mr. Sullivan posted two pictures we echo here, one of Gen. David Petraeus and one of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. This is the Eisenhower of D-Day, of the long slog through Europe in World War II. He didn't seem to see the need to dress himself up and tell you what he'd done. Maybe he thought you knew. He didn't wear all the honors to which he was entitled, though he could have used them to dazzle the masses if that had been what he was interested in.

Top brass sure is brassier than it used to be. And you have to wonder what that's about. Where did the old culture of modesty go? Ulysses S. Grant wore four stars on his shoulder and nothing else on his uniform. And that was a fellow who'd earned a few medals.

Jump now to the woman who is the main focus in the Petraeus scandal, Paula Broadwell. She was a person of impressive achievement right from the start – high school valedictorian, West Point grad, master's degrees, Army officer. But even that wasn't enough ribbons. In YouTube videos she brags about her security clearance, her inside knowledge – “That's still being vetted” – and the Ph.D. she's working on. She calls herself a biographer, but biographers actually do something arduous – they write biographies.

Ms. Broadwell contracted with a professional, reporter Vernon Loeb, to organize, synthesize, think and write. On Twitter, Ms. Broadwell describes herself as “Author … National Security Analyst; Army Vet; Women's Rights Activist; Runner/Skier/Surfer; Wife; Mom!” On her website she noted that in her free time she is an Ironman triathlete “and a model and demonstrator for KRISS, a manufacturer of .45-caliber machine guns.” “When Paula is not on the frontlines, online, or writing lines,” she and her husband run, ski and surf together.

My goodness. All hail. This isn't describing yourself in the best possible light, this is bragging about yourself to a degree and in a way that is actually half mad.

But it's kind of the way people talk about themselves now. And I have to say, this is new. Not new in history but new as a fully developed and enveloping national style. You know why they loved us in Europe in World War II? I mean aside from because we won? Because they thought we were kind of strong and silent – modest, actually – like Gary Cooper in “Sergeant York.” Now we still do ratta-tat-tat, but it's on Facebook and it's about how great we are.

We used to worry that kids would be victims of the self-esteem movement, that constant praise would keep them from an honestly earned, and therefore stable, self-respect, and steer them toward mere conceit. Now parents have it.

The other young woman in the story, Ms. Broadwell's apparent nemesis, felt harassed when her role became known. Jill Kelley called 911 and quickly informed the operator of her status. “You know, I don't know if by any chance, because I'm an honorary consul general, so I have inviolability.” She suggested “diplomatic protection” might be in order. But she isn't a diplomat, she's a lady who gives parties and knows a lot of people. She even knows an FBI agent who opened an investigation for her because she felt harassed by anonymous emails. This really was a confusing part of the story. Just about everyone, certainly every woman, in the public eye in America receives aggressive, insulting, menacing emails. We didn't know we could get FBI investigations opened for that! Maybe our mistake is not being honorary consuls with inviolability.

* * *

These are just the players in the scandal of the week. Have we noticed a certain lack of modesty in our political figures? Thank goodness, therefore, for Mitt Romney, who in a conference call with donors said he got beat and beat bad, that his campaign was lacking, that his gut on the big issues was probably off, that he shouldn't have allowed his campaign to become (in the grandiose, faux-macho lingo of campaign consultants who wish they wore fruit salad) an air war and not a ground war, and that they were smoked in get-out-the-vote. He added, with an eye to concerns larger than his own, that he wanted to help the party analyze and define what didn't work in 2012 so it would be stronger in 2016.

Sorry. Kidding! He didn't say that.

He said the administration gave “gifts” to interest groups, and the groups appreciated the gifts, and, people being the little automatons they are, said yes, sire, and voted for him.

In a way it was as bad as the old “47%” tape. Because it was so limited.

* * *

Which gets us to the president. He's looking very stern. You don't have a problem with Susan Rice, you have a problem with me, he says, with a scowl. He talks about the fiscal cliff but not in a way that shows a real eagerness for compromise. He does not define areas of potential give, potential progress. He won, after all. He doesn't have to.

What is needed is bigness, magnanimity. It's not all about him, his party, it's not all about self. It is not even all about one's deepest political intentions. There are other ways and schedules for moving forward there.

Get the Republicans leaders on the Hill together. Suggest in subtle ways you'll let them save face. Quietly acknowledge you weren't the best negotiator in the world the first time 'round, and neither were they. Maybe no one was quite their best. But the nation faces a real challenge and there will be economic repercussions in mishandling it. “Let's make a deal and let's make it quickly. We all have to play games but not too much and not too long.”

And mean it. And deal.

This would be good for the president, good for his legacy, good for the country. This is a man who could show that in a time of crisis he and Speaker John Boehner could re-enact Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill. Which is something the country would be relieved to see. “Look – it still works!”

It might take some of the bitterness, some of the long, grinding, partisan poison out of the system.

Might we see that?

Or just instead the stern face, the old soft, nebulous aggression, in the age of the outsized ego?


Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Blind socialist sheep, are learning from their master, how to wear conceit on their shirt sleeves. My Dad was in the 4th armored division, commanded by real men; Generals Baird, Devers, and John S. Wood.All three had a great sense of patriotism, duty, integrity, and yes, humility. They helped liberate France, Luxembourg, and Germany. How do neo-marx reprobates sleep?

Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 4:57 AM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

The Army bought into the psychobabble about self-esteem. They started giving out medals and ribbons for doing ordinary things. If you attended Non-Commissoned Officer schools in order to be promoted they gave you a ribbon. If you simply did your job you could get an Achievement ribbon or an Army Commendation medal depending on your rank. Another one for simply serving overseas. These were things that most soldiers were required to do anyway in the course of their service. If is amazing how many ribbons you see on soldiers who have been in the Army for a few years. These awards are used as an incentive to keep soldiers
re-enlisting because there is no longer a draft. I'm not knocking the soldiers because I have the highest regard for those who serve because I was one of them for 22 years. If you are given the awards during a combat deployment then they are well-earned. I'm knocking the system that gives out awards for just doing your everyday job.

Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 9:27 AM

wjm in Colorado replied:

After a childhood of everybody gets a trophy, the military now rewards having a pulse to get medals. I spent 26 years in the Air Force, and most medals are a waste of time (and a great deal of money to have mounted). I am proud of the medals actually earned in combat. I have a handfull of medals for breathing, that John Kerry can throw back for me.

Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 11:51 AM

enemaofthestatistquo in Monroe, GA replied:

The Kerryification of Bravery.

Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 9:39 PM

Gregory in Yakima said:

Fear is one of the most powerful motivators. People who learn to manipulate find fear is a great tool. Notice in the ramp up to the invasion of Iraq how fear was used to overcome better judgement. Accusing anyone who voiced their caution with accusations of treason discouraged others from speaking out. Four trillion dollars and tens of thousands of dead is a criminal case but those who were moved by fear refuse to show their courage by saying so, even now.

Hubris is nothing new. The Greek tragedies were often based on the dangers of hubris, the Bible has many morality tales and we've no shortage of good examples even in local politics today.

One might have hoped the internet age might have provided the antidote to hubris and ungrounded fears. If it has it isn't enough. Anyone researching the claims of WMDs in Iraq, aluminum tubes and etc. learned we were being manipulated by lies and propaganda.

We humans too readily give ourselves to conceits and temptations. It's just the human condition I suppose. It's easy to see or even imagine when it's the other guy, but we're too often blind to our own self-deceptions.

Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 2:04 PM

wjm in Colorado replied:

How does it feel to be the ultimate manipulee of media propoganda Sodomite? The weapons were there, 600 tons of uranium were shipped to Canada. What possible use for a dual use factory? Mass graves, evidence of Chemical attack. Convoys of trucks leaving facilities just minutes ahead of inspectors. You should fear your eternity in Hell. You are blind to your own self deception, that is right on the mark TRAITOR.

Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 10:21 AM

R.M. Zobenica in Mountain Iron, MN replied:

I invite you to employ one of the tools of the internet age.
Search: Iraq+Yellowcake

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 12:55 PM

richard ryan in Lamar,Missouri said:

Well Pegs, sweetie; you were doing pretty well until you just had to jump on Romney for telling the truth. I don`t know how anyone who is either blind or stupid as you can write on this blog. Romney was absolutely right about the voters who voted for Obama. Go change your panites and open your eyes babe. And while you`re at it, get over your Obama crush.

Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 2:19 PM

Cal in So Cal said:

Pegs, "The Constitutional Professor" has stated poublicly that he thinks the Constitution is "flawed because it made no provisions for the redistribution of wealth." He has made many public and behind the scenes moves issuing Executive Orders bypassing Congress. Just wait what he does in the next few years including the appointment of many life-long judges to all benches. "The big are modest" indeed.

Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 7:27 PM

DaneChile in Shame said:

Navy Uniform Regs require that the tope three awards be worn. The rest are optional. Get that idea spread and let it be known that anywone wearing all the gedunk ribbons is simply bragging about nothing. It will stop soon enough.

A Commandant, USMC once sent a Marine Corps-wide msg saying, "Any officer that needs to carry a swagger stick to feel important, by all means do so." You´ll notice there haven´t been swagger sticks for thirty years or more.

Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 12:22 PM

billy396 in ohio said:

"Get the Republicans leaders on the Hill together. Suggest in subtle ways you'll let them save face. Quietly acknowledge you weren't the best negotiator in the world the first time 'round, and neither were they." Peggy, if you are so delusional as to think that it's even remotely possible that Obozo would EVER make a statement or even a suggestion of that kind, you are indeed a blind fool. Can't you see where he's heading? Can't you even try to read between the lines? This wannabe tinpot dictator wants to destroy our freedom, period. He longs for a day when the federal government IN Washington runs EVERY aspect of human life in this country. If you don't think that Obozo is just plain evil towards liberty, then you're fooling yourself. His hero is Hugo Chavez, and he wants to be the new American Dictator with every fiber of his being.

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 10:31 AM

R.M. Zobenica in Mountain Iron, MN said:

The comity that was on display between Reagan and O'Neill was due primarily to the generosity and personal magnanimity of Reagan...he of the philosophy "much is possible if one doesn't worry about who gets the credit".

From Steven F. Hayward, Commentary Magazine, Oct. 2011.

As for the supposed sweetness and light between Reagan and Tip O’Neill, it was mostly blarney. The two had numerous tense phone calls and meetings. In private they called each other’s views “crap” on more than one occasion; as the budget talks in 1982 headed to a climax, Reagan told O’Neill, “you can get me to crap a pineapple, but you can’t get me to crap a cactus.” O’Neill publicly called Reagan “callous . . . a real Ebenezer Scrooge,” whose program was “for the selfish, the greedy, and the affluent.” In his diary, Reagan wrote: “Tip O’Neil [sic] is getting rough; saw him on TV telling the United Steelworkers U. that I am going to destroy the nation.” He also told his diary that “Tip is a true pol. He can really like you personally & be a friend while politically trying to beat your head in.” That was Reagan at his most charitable. He noted once that in a White House meeting where O’Neill “sounded off in a very partisan manner,” “I almost let go the controls but I didn’t,” and on another occasion he described one of O’Neill’s public claims as “the most vicious pack of lies I’ve ever seen.”

Reagan had in mind such O’Neill gems as his remarks in 1981 on ABC that Reagan “has no concern, no regard, no care for the little man in America. And I understand that. Because of his lifestyle, he never meets those people.” This was a mere warm-up for O’Neill’s blast at Reagan during the 1984 campaign:

The evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 12:46 PM

Tad Petrie in Westerville, OH said:

Ok Ms. Noonan,

Which President and Speaker Of The House are you talking about?! "This is a man who could show that in a time of crisis he and Speaker John Boehner could re-enact Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill."

First of all, the President doesn't need to do any “give and take” like Ronald Reagan did, because Boehner WILL compromise on command, just like he has since becoming the Speaker. I may not have agreed politically with Tip O’Neill, but at least he stood up for what he believed in. And if Ronald Reagan had committed just one of the MANY impeachable offenses that Barack Hussein Obama has committed since taking office, O’Neill would have impeached him faster than you can say “Bedtime For Bonzo”! There will be no “Bipartisan” agreement to avert the “Fiscal Cliff”. The President will demand higher taxes; Boehner and McConnell will roll over and agree to it. The President will not cut spending; Boehner and McConnell will roll over and agree to it. The President will continue to LIE about Benghazi; Boehner and McConnell will roll over and let him get away with it. The economy will be destroyed and Boehner and McConnell will roll over and let him get away with it. And it will go on and on because NO ONE in Congress will stand up and stop it! And by 2016, we will be living in a bankrupt Third World Socialist dictatorship!

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 1:05 PM

Thomas in Birmingham said:

No one, except maybe those born in the 80's, need be told who Dwight Eisenhower was. His lack of "fruit salad" on his chest was indeed a real show of his acomplishments. He didn't lead men in battle like Patton or
Taylor, what he did do was so impressive to most of us. He organized the largest defeat on an agressor nation ever, and was quiet about it all. He even warned us all of what was coming, the military/industrial complex that is so embedded in the Pentagon today.

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 3:08 PM

charlie in Tunkhannock, PA said:

Ms Noonan sometimes the truth is short and ugly, like Romney's post mortem. You want a fancy loser's speech inspiring the troops to get ready for 2016 with new campaign tactics to fight the incumbent money faucet, in a media environment 90% stacked against them. Doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result is called insanity. For you its all about the speech.

The money faucet, being shorthand for "pay off every interest group", reached new heights this year. The Democrats have found their holy grail and they will keep using it until they spend the country into oblivion. The Republicans need a really new strategy, like, don't nominate a candidate next time---don't waste their breath and money. Concentrate on the state and congressional races. The incumbent President would have no coattails; how many would bother to vote for him, unopposed? Crazy idea? Well it's at least different.

Monday, November 19, 2012 at 7:49 PM