Rudy Giuliani feels unloved. And he suggests you should feel that way, too, thanks to a compliment deficit from our cheerleader in chief.
As you’ve probably heard by now, last week Giuliani accused President Obama of not really loving his homeland, or its virtuous people. “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America,” said the former New York mayor. “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country.”
Many have argued that this was a not-so-subtle appeal to bigoted beliefs about Obama’s birthplace and pedigree. I think it’s about something else entirely, though equally pernicious: the dangerous way in which politicians, and many of their constituents, mistake flattery for love.
After his remarks ignited a firestorm, Giuliani began citing evidence for his conclusions. Maybe Obama loves his country, he demurred to Bloomberg Politics, but “he doesn’t express it.” Giuliani told the New York Times that he wished Obama would “give a speech where he talks about what’s good about America and doesn’t include all the criticism.” On Fox News, he elaborated, “I don’t hear from him what I heard from Harry Truman, what I heard from Bill Clinton, what I heard from Jimmy Carter, which is these wonderful words about what a great country we are, what an exceptional country we are.”
Now, as Post fact-checker extraordinaire Glenn Kessler has explained, this characterization of Obama’s speeches seems off the mark; on many occasions Obama has shown no dearth of effusion for this country, its “exceptionalism,” its founding story, its ideals and its Horatio Alger-like ability to launch the biracial child of a single mother on food stamps into the White House.
But let’s say Giuliani’s portrayal was indeed correct. Let’s say Obama was less than ebullient about his patriotism and less than prolific with his declarations of love for his country.
Would that really be so telling? Since when did the willingness to offer unadulterated praise become the primary measure of love?
For thousands of years, the West’s greatest thinkers and writers have warned of the dangers of precisely this conflation.
Plutarch, among other ancients, advised seeking out truth-tellers rather than flatterers for friendship. Dante, in “The Divine Comedy,” condemned flatterers to the eighth circle of hell, where they wallow in human excrement (which some might interpret as a symbol of what they spew). Chaucer wrote of Chanticleer, the golden-voiced rooster who quite literally fell prey to false praise when a wily fox appealed to his vanity. Likewise Machiavelli warned leaders to shun yes-men and seek counsel from those willing to offer frank criticism when warranted instead. Such warnings aren’t tough to find in the Bible, either.
Perhaps the best-known cautionary tales about charismatic boot-lickers, though, come from the Bard. In “Hamlet,” “Timon of Athens,” “Julius Caesar” and “Othello,” Shakespeare portrayed heroes whose downfalls stemmed from their inability to distinguish fawning from genuine affection, or, more rarely, whose worth was proven by their skill in spotting the difference. His most celebrated play on this theme is “King Lear,” in which a monarch’s anger over his daughter’s inability to offer amply gilded declarations of adoration led to his, and his kingdom’s, unraveling. “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth,” honest, devoted, soon-to-be-exiled Cordelia explains. “I love your majesty / According to my bond; no more nor less.”
These literary touchstones primarily warn against leaders’ susceptibility to sycophants. But in a democracy, voters who seek only adulation from their leaders can be equally worrisome.
Flattery of leaders might lead to recklessness, but flattery of the populace can breed complacency. The president’s job is not just to tell us how great and exceptional we are; it’s to motivate us to become even greater, even more exceptional, and to show us how to get there. If Obama has failed on these fronts, upping his suck-up quotient seems unlikely to help.
Indeed, the most disturbing aspect of Giuliani’s comments (and those of his sympathizers) is not the smears against Obama’s motivations; it’s his insinuations about the motivations of Americans more broadly. Is our City on a Hill really so fragile, so devoid of self-esteem, that we need constant, unblemished compliments — spangled with flag pins, whitewashed history books and other ready-made trappings of patriotism — in order to continue our pursuit of exceptionalism?
Have a little faith in your fellow citizens, Mr. Mayor.