For someone who avoids Washington like the plague, I probably spend more time talking with politicians than anyone you know. Most of them seem very nice. Seeming very nice is half their job. "Seeming," though, doesn't mean very much; it's like being well-dressed and "stylish." Being political in the real world is almost like saying being a "phony."
One-- this one for sure-- tries to see beyond the well-dressed, nice-acting politician. In 2009, a very well-dressed Gavin Newsom was running for governor of California. Another well-practiced glad-hander, Bill Clinton, had endorsed him and he seemed unstoppable-- except for one thing: polls consistently showed that the voters didn't like him. A former San Francisco County Supervisor and then a neo-liberal Mayor, he knew he had to get better known in other parts of the state and by Califrnia's progressive activists. He invited the Los Angeles political bloggers to a getting-to-know-you session in a hip-seeming, non-business hotel for an informal q&a. He swept everyone off their feet. Some of the smartest people I know seemed to be completely taken in by a guy who, to me at least, seemed like a smarmy hustler. Yes, he was charming and smart as a whip. But where others read "competent" and "nice," I saw "unctuous" and "dishonest." [NOTE: I don't always get it right. I misread Chris Carney and, more recently, Jared Golden, two cowardly conservatives who tried passing themselves off as progressives to gain support and power; I got taken in by both.]
Politico Magazine featured a piece by John Harris this morning, Why So Many Politicians Are Such Assholes. "Politicians," he began, "have devoted their professional lives to the art of public persuasion. Reputation is everything. Success hinges on getting as many people as possible to view their ideas and their life stories as sympathetically as possible. Sounds simple enough. But here is a puzzle: Why are so many people in the business of being likable actually so unlikable?" I guess a definition of likable is important here. What makes someone likable? A nice big smile? An ability to seem like they care what you're saying? Honesty and frankness? Manners? Religiosity? I suppose it's different for different beholders.
Harris moves quickly to explain his definitions: "Not unlikable merely in the awkward, eye-rolling, prefer-not-to-spend-much-time-with-that-clod sense. Unlikable in the toxic, misanthropic, something-must-be-wrong-with-him sense. In other words: in the Andrew Cuomo sense. Or at least, it is now clear, the way many subordinates and fellow politicians experienced Cuomo on many occasions. The unlikability of many politicians and people who labor for them is an enduring phenomenon. No need to pick on Cuomo, except that he’s spent decades asking for it and is in the news right now. His case is part of a convergence of recent events this week that puts an old subject in a vivid new light."
Here’s an obvious truth: Cuomo, battling allegations from women employees of sexual harassment and widespread reports of an abusive office culture in ways that go beyond sex, has not bothered much over the years cultivating friends and allies who are ready to stand with him even when times are tough. To the contrary, many politicians from both parties are calling for his resignation, and an even greater number are plainly enjoying his precipitous fall from the lionized status he enjoyed a year ago, during the opening days of the pandemic.
Here’s another obvious one: Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader turned business executive who died last week and was eulogized by former presidents and CEOs at a memorial service on Tuesday, devoted his life to making friends and reaping the benefits of those friendships. Since his death it’s also become clear that Jordan devoted considerable time to behind-the-scenes cultivation of media figures, an effort that likely is more than incidental to the reputation he enjoyed.
Here’s what should be obvious but evidently isn’t. Even if the effort is insincere, self-interest alone would dictate that most politicians and operatives try to emulate Jordan and at all hazards avoid coming off like Cuomo. There are plenty of examples of people who seemed ripe for hazing by political opponents or the media-- the raw material for adverse scrutiny and judgment seemed likely there — but avoided it in part because good personal relationships made them less appealing targets. And there are plenty of counter-examples, like Cuomo, of important people who learned too late that what goes around comes around.
Yet many people in politics don’t make the effort to be appealing, and many who try don’t succeed. To put the question in clinical terms: What structural factors explain why politics produces so many assholes?
One element is probably ageless. Professions that demand public performance attract ambitious, creative and often needy people who feel under intense psychic pressure and often take it out on people when the spotlight is not on (or they wrongly assume it is not on). There are even examples, or so I’ve heard, of this phenomenon afflicting people in the news media.
But an important factor is distinctly a product of this age: The cult of bad-ass, trash-talking that has come to politics, including or especially to political-media relations. This coincides with the ascent of formerly anonymous political operatives to quasi-celebrity status. Among both principals and advisers, the willingness to swagger and snarl and be combative with opponents and journalists is now often seen as a sign of strength. The trend is bipartisan. In the Obama years, many young operatives, who in some contexts seemed like decent folks, during working hours adapted F-bomb dropping personas in which being smug was cool and being combative was a sign of devotion to the boss.
You might say that Donald Trump, who expressed contempt toward anyone who challenged him, proved the case that likability doesn’t matter. Yet many who have spent time privately around Trump say that he was shaped by the hospitality industry and actually seems to work at being charming when necessary. Even if Trump is as unlikable as he seems, for most politicians he is not a useful example. It’s a bit like they used to say at Evel Knievel’s daredevil motorcycle stunts: Don’t try this at home, kids.
The third factor is that being likable is a more ethically complex question than it might seem at first blush. For 30 years, people have been saying that Hillary Rodham Clinton is actually much more likable-- perceptive, sincere, gossipy, funny, normal-- than her public persona, which is typically viewed as self-absorbed, calculating, brittle, phony. I have enough first-hand experience to believe this alleged likability is more than rumor. But she rejected advice from counselors on countless occasions to spend more time off-the-record with journalists whose work she resented. Nope, that would only prove she was as disingenuous as critics said. So good for her in not pretending to be more likable than she felt. But sincerity came at a high cost, for her and anyone who believes Trump’s presidency was a setback for the country.
There are also counterexamples. Journalist Mark Leibovich in his acidic book, This Town, described Washington careerists who were superficially nice but were actually profiteering bullshitters. I can think of a successful operative turned public affairs professional who easily passes my BS detector-- always prompt to return calls and responsive with answers-- who has a reputation as an abusive boss.
Finally, there is a blurry line between being friendly and, as the kids say, being thirsty. Journalists should not tilt coverage in the direction of people we personally like, or against those we don’t, but it is folly to suggest this isn’t sometimes a factor. There was a presidential candidate this last cycle who loved talking to the press but never gained much by doing so, since the candidate came off as suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. Who knew being likable was so difficult?
Newsom has always seen himself as a future president-- God forbid-- but now, his arrogance and penchant for lying have caught up with him. Whether he survives the recall or not-- I'm a "yes" vote-- his career in electoral politics is over. Gee, I hope that $12,000 worth of vino came with a good buzz. The Republican Party is filled with hubristic assholes like Newsom and Cuomo; we don't need characters like them anywhere near the Democratic Party-- and that's the job of primary voters.
There are 105 Democrats in the New York State Assembly. 55 of them are demanding that Cuomo resign, including Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. Maybe California Democratic state legislators would have more credibility among voters if they had held Newsom to account the way they would have held a Republican governor to account. More than "likable," I prefer my politicians honest and courageous.