One of the most distressing things about current American culture – or perhaps I should say the most depressing thing – is the complete and utterly bipartisan inability of so many people in public life to look into the mirror and see themselves.
Call it the self-reflection deficit. Even though we don’t see it around much any more, you must remember self-reflection and its well-know bias for truth and personal responsibility.
“I gotta pay our bills,” says Bill Clinton about his post-presidential life as the best-paid saxophone player from Hope, Arkansas. Clinton made the comment when asked whether he would continue gathering up six figure checks making speeches while his wife runs for president. Clinton shows no sign that he appreciates, even a little, the conflicts swirling around him, his wife and their foundation thanks to his talking, apparently to almost anyone with a big bank account for big checks.
Payin’ the Bills in Clintonland…
Clinton had to have made his recent “pay the bills” comment knowing that he and Hillary would soon have to report the obscene cash haul – $25 million just since January 2014 – the two have raked in for standing behind a podium. The Associated Press also reported that Bill, that talkin’ fool, banked $50 million more for the speeches he made while Hillary was the country’s chief diplomat. Apparently a good deal of the cash came from well-healed individuals who just might have wanted to influence the former president’s wife. Go figure. Did I mention that Hillary’s State Department vetted all those speeches and, gosh, didn’t see a problem.
With income like that its hard to fathom the kinds of bills the Clintons “gotta pay,” but one certainly hopes that charging all those expenses on a platinum credit card that gives them airline miles, or at least points toward gas purchases.
But here’s where the self-reflection comes to play. Most folks would say to the Clintons, “if you can make that kind of dough just talking go for it, but don’t insult our intelligence by dismissing legitimate questions about how it looks and whether it’s just unseemly or something a good deal worse.”
The Clintons display one the worst characteristics of too many non-self-reflective people in public life, they apparently think – at least in their own minds – that if they’re well intentioned enough and stand for all the right things then, hey, what’s the beef about twenty-five or fifty million dollars to make up for having left the White House, as Hill said, “dead broke?” Bill says his foundation did nothing “knowingly inappropriate,” but that depends, I guess, on the definition of “inappropriate.”
Americans, being a generally forgiving bunch, don’t begrudge the Clintons making a nice or even an extravagant living. However, they shouldn’t be surprised that we do resent the smugness that goes with public figures dismissing questions about all that cash, while they fail to reflect on why we think they just don’t get it.
Ignoring the Obvious…
The self-reflection deficit has been fully in evidence around Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, as well. Bush had a perfectly awful few days with his shifting answers to a simple and predictable question about whether he would have authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq in light of “knowing what we know now.” Bush has a dynasty problem – Hillary Clinton does as well – that he continues to try and finesse rather than address. Whether he likes it or not – not would be my guess – voters want to know where and how he differs with his dad and older brother. As good a place as any to begin those questions is with the disastrous Iraq war that brother W. launched; arguably the worst foreign policy mistake since, well, in a long, long time.
As Maureen Dowd points out, Bush is the son and brother of two former presidents, but wants to pretend that George H.W. and W. are just family and he loves his family. Well, of course he does, but he’s not running for president to preside over Bush family Thanksgiving dinners. His judgment and – that word again – reflection over the mistakes of the past will tell us a great deal about how he’ll approach the job if he succeeds in getting the Lincoln Bedroom back in the family. Jeb can no more separate his presidential ambitions from his relative’s records than John Quincy Adams or Robert Kennedy could from theirs. That Bush is even trying, and with the flimsy explanation that he doesn’t like to answer hypotheticals and he loves the two Georges, is not only proof of a lack of self-reflection, but also a likely losing political strategy.
You almost want to grab the former Florida governor by the lapels, turn him toward a mirror and demand he decide what he really believes about the family business he hopes to continue. After all, as Dowd wrote in a recent column, “Jeb hasn’t even been asked any questions yet about W.’s dark contributions on waterboarding, the deficit and the near-total collapse of the American economy.” He will.
Will Jeb be self-aware enough to self-reflect on what he really believes? You can still love your brother and think he was a fool.
The Well-Know Bias: Truth…
Speaking of Iraq, former Vice President Dick Cheney may have retired the no self-reflection trophy with his inability or unwillingness to own up to any mistakes related to the Bush Administration’s various wars, detentions and tortures. Despite the mounting volumes detailing Cheney’s cynical merchandising of dubious intelligence, just to cite one example, the old cynic regularly emerges from his undisclosed location to hold forth on what he sees as the vast mistakes of the current administration, while refusing to accept even a whiff of responsibility for the steaming pile he and his boss left for Barack Obama.
History, with a bias for facts and responsibility, will sort all this out and Cheney will forever be regarded as among the principal responsible parties for a multitude of great mistakes, including invading Iraq on sexed up intelligence. He deserves it. Even Robert McNamera, a Cheney-like character from an earlier generation, finally confronted his personal and professional shortcomings, characteristics that everyone else had long ago identified. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that level of self-awareness from Cheney. Self-assured he most certainly is, but then again self-reflection requires character.
The no self-reflection caucus has a lot of members, including professional blowhards like Donald Trump and failures in both business and politics like former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
One gets the impression that a guy like The Donald considers self-reflection to mean thinking deeply about how wonderful he is and concluding after further consideration that he is even more impressive. Ms. Fiorina, who made a big splash at the recent Iowa GOP cattle call for the eight hundred and some people running for president, apparently thinks having once met Vladimir Putin qualifies as foreign policy experience and getting fired in one of the highest profile corporate dismissals in recent history, not to mention getting wiped out in a California Senate race, are resume builders on the path to the Oval Office.
In Oregon, heads are still shaking over former Governor John Kitzhaber’s inability to self-reflect on the shenanigans of the even more non-self-reflecting fiancé who forced him out of public life just weeks after he won a fourth term.
Professional sports and the media have their share of incredibly well paid humans who refuse to self-reflect. Talented and supremely unaware quarterback Tom Brady refused to cooperate with the NFL investigation of his under-inflated footballs, then lawyers up to challenge the findings.
Often there isn’t much naval gazing in journalism either. Judith Miller still hasn’t fessed up to blowing her New York Times reporting of Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and actually has a new book attempting to explain away some of the worst reporting on the run-up to the war.
Brian Williams apparently thinks he might one day return to the NBC anchor desk after making up war news about himself. Williams, not unlike Jeb Bush, tried to over explain what is pretty clearly a series of tall tales that reflect no reflection, but likely much more. Even some of those we count on to call B.S. on the non-self-reflectors can’t find it in themselves to gaze in the mirror.
Paging O’Reilly and Stephanopoulos…
Modern Survival Skills: Never Admit Anything…
We could go on and on, sadly, but you get the drift. When thinking about the unremitting lack of self-awareness in so many people in public life, I find myself longing for the kind of brutal justice British politics extracts from those who fail. Tradition and reality demands that British pols that screw up must self-reflect very quickly.
British Labour Party leader Ed Milaband lost – badly lost – the recent election. Milaband resigned the next morning. No time for fussing with a post-election “mistakes were made” plea that things will be different next time. Miliband went from “the next prime minister” to “Ed who?” in the time it takes to change your socks. Period. End of story. “Ed who” is now presumably self-reflecting in an undisclosed location.
More and more people in public life seem to have decided that the essential requirement of survival in the age of the ten-second sound bite and the twenty-four hour news cycle is to never, ever admit uncertainty or acknowledge that careful and nuanced consideration, including knowing yourself, is the essence of leadership. Above all they never, heaven forbid, ever acknowledge a mistake, even the smallest one.
The modern poll-tested, cable television survival skills demand a willing suspension of any degree of self-reflection, since consideration of one’s actions – real consideration – inevitably demands admission of some error. No one is perfect, as they say, but many these days think they must act as though they are. There is no substitute for “perfection” and certainty of self. Self-reflection is for sissies, or losers.
But, as our Mom’s told us, the admission of mistakes, or even the awareness that things might have been done better, is also the only possible path to getting better. Know yourself and you know what you need to work on.
I’d like to see Mom’s kind of candidate on the ballot. Someone willing to struggle with facts. Someone who understands that we are all a bundle of contradictions. Someone who admits they have something to learn. Someone who sees the world from the inside out. Someone big enough and secure enough to confront mistakes. Someone real.
Wouldn’t that be something to reflect upon.