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George Will / Oct. 6, 2009

Olympic Gold for Narcissism

In the Niagara of words spoken and written about the Obamas’ trip to Copenhagen, too few have been devoted to the words they spoke there. Their separate speeches to the International Olympic Committee were so dreadful, and in such a characteristic way, that they might be symptomatic of something that has serious implications for American governance. Both Obamas gave heartfelt speeches about … themselves.

WASHINGTON – In the Niagara of words spoken and written about the Obamas’ trip to Copenhagen, too few have been devoted to the words they spoke there. Their separate speeches to the International Olympic Committee were so dreadful, and in such a characteristic way, that they might be symptomatic of something that has serious implications for American governance.

Both Obamas gave heartfelt speeches about … themselves. Although the working of the committee’s mind is murky, it could reasonably have rejected Chicago’s bid for the 2016 games on aesthetic grounds – unless narcissism has suddenly become an Olympic sport.

In the 41 sentences of her remarks, Michelle Obama used some form of the personal pronouns “I” or “me” 44 times. Her husband was, comparatively, a shrinking violet, using those pronouns only 26 times in 48 sentences. Still, 70 times in 89 sentences was sufficient to convey the message that somehow their fascinating selves were what made, or should have made, Chicago’s case compelling.

In 2008, Obama carried the three congressional districts that contain Northern California’s Silicon Valley with 73.1, 69.6 and 68.4 percent of the vote. Surely the Valley could continue its service to him by designing software for his speechwriters’ computers that would delete those personal pronouns, replacing them with the word “sauerkraut” to underscore the antic nature of their excessive appearances.

And – this will be trickier – the software should delete the most egregious cliches sprinkled around by the tin-eared employees in the White House speechwriting shop. The president told the Olympic committee that: “At this defining moment,” a moment “when the fate of each nation is inextricably linked to the fate of all nations” in “this ever-shrinking world,” he aspires to “forge new partnerships with the nations and the peoples of the world.”

Good grief. The memory of man runneth not to a moment that escaped being declared “defining” – declared such by someone seeking to inflate himself by inflating it. Also, enough already with the “shrinking” world, which has been so described at least since Magellan set sail, and probably before that. And by the way, the “fate” of – to pick a nation at random – Chile is not really in any meaningful sense “inextricably linked” to that of, say, Chad.

But meaningful sense is often absent from the gaseous rhetoric that makes it past White House editors – are there any? – and onto the president’s teleprompter. Consider one recent example:

Nine days before speaking in Copenhagen, the president, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, intoned: “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation.” What was the speechwriter thinking when he or she assembled that sentence? The “should” was empty moralizing; the “can” was nonsense redundantly refuted by history. Does our Cicero even glance at his speeches before reading them in public?

Becoming solemn in Copenhagen, Obama said: “No one expects the games to solve all our collective problems.” That’s right, no one does. So why say that? Then, shifting into the foggy sentimentalism of standard Olympics blather, he said “peaceful competition between nations represents what’s best about our humanity” and “it brings us together” and “it helps us to understand one another.”

Actually, sometimes the Olympic games are a net subtraction from international comity. But Obama quickly returned to speaking about … himself:

“Nearly one year ago, on a clear November night, people from every corner of the world gathered in the city of Chicago or in front of their televisions to watch the results of the U.S. presidential election. Their interest wasn’t about me as an individual. Rather, … ”

It was gallant of the president to say to the Olympic committee that Michelle is “a pretty big selling point for the city.” Gallant, but obviously untrue. And – this is where we pass from the merely silly to the ominous – suppose the president was being not gallant but sincere. Perhaps the premise of the otherwise inexplicable trip to Denmark was that there is no difficulty, foreign or domestic, that cannot be melted by the sunshine of the Obama persona. But in the contest between the world and any president’s charm, bet on the world.

Presidents often come to be characterized by particular adjectives: “honest” Abe Lincoln, “Grover the Good” Cleveland, “energetic” Theodore Roosevelt, “idealistic” Woodrow Wilson, “Silent Cal” Coolidge, “confident” FDR, “likable” Ike Eisenhower. Less happily, there were “Tricky Dick” Nixon and “Slick Willie” Clinton. Unhappy will be a president whose defining adjective is “vain.”

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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