Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your father’s political campaign.Last week, at one of Mitt Romney’s “Ask Mitt” forums, a woman in the audience asked Mr. Romney whether any of his five sons are serving in the military and, if not, when they plan to enlist.
The candidate replied with a rambling attempt to change the subject, but near the end he let his real feelings slip. “It’s remarkable how we can show our support for our nation,” he said, “and one of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping to get me elected, because they think I’d be a great president.”
Wow. The important point isn’t the fact that Mr. Romney’s sons aren’t in uniform — although it is striking just how few of those who claim to believe that we’re engaged in a struggle for our very existence think that they themselves should be called on to make any sacrifices. The point is, instead, that Mr. Romney apparently considers helping him get elected an act of service comparable to putting your life on the line in Iraq.
Yet the week’s prize for most self-centered remark by a serious presidential contender goes not to Mr. Romney, but to his principal rival for the G.O.P. nomination.
Rudy Giuliani has lately been getting some long-overdue criticism for his missteps both before and after 9/11. For example, The Village Voice reports that he insisted that the city’s emergency command center — which included a personal suite with its own elevator that he visited “often, even on weekends, bringing his girlfriend Judi Nathan there long before the relationship surfaced” — be within walking distance of City Hall. This led to the disastrous decision to locate the center in the World Trade Center, an obvious potential terrorist target.
At the same time, Mr. Giuliani is being attacked for his failure to take adequate precautions to protect those who worked on the cleanup at ground zero from the hazards at the site. Many workers have since been sickened by the dust and toxic materials.
For a politician whose entire campaign is based on the myth of his leadership that fateful day — as The Onion put it, Mr. Giuliani is running for “president of 9/11” — anything that challenges his personal legend is a big problem. So here’s what Mr. Giuliani said last week in response: “I was at ground zero as often, if not more, than most of the workers. ... I was exposed to exactly the same things they were exposed to. So in that sense, I’m one of them.”
Real ground zero workers, who were digging through the toxic rubble while Mr. Giuliani held photo ops, were understandably outraged. So the next day Mr. Giuliani tried to recover, claiming that “what I was trying to say yesterday is that I empathize with them because I feel like I have that same risk.” But thanks to the wonders of YouTube, we can all watch Mr. Giuliani’s actual demeanor as he delivered the original remarks. Empathy had nothing to do with it.
What’s striking about these unintentional moments of self-revelation is how much Mr. Romney and Mr. Giuliani sound like the current occupant of the White House.
It has long been clear that President Bush doesn’t feel other people’s pain. His self-centeredness shines through whenever he makes off-the-cuff, unscripted remarks, from his jocular obliviousness in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the joke he made last year in San Antonio when visiting the Brooke Army Medical Center, which treats the severely wounded: “As you can possibly see, I have an injury myself — not here at the hospital, but in combat with a cedar. I eventually won. The cedar gave me a little scratch.”
What’s now clear is that the two men most likely to end up as the G.O.P. presidential nominee are cut from the same cloth.
This probably isn’t a coincidence. Arguably, the current state of the Republican Party is such that only extreme narcissists have a chance of getting nominated.
To be a serious presidential contender, after all, you have to be a fairly smart guy — and nobody has accused either Mr. Romney or Mr. Giuliani of being stupid. To appeal to the G.O.P. base, however, you have to say very stupid things, like Mr. Romney’s declaration that we should “double Guantánamo,” or Mr. Giuliani’s dismissal of the idea that raising taxes is sometimes necessary to pay for things like repairing bridges as a “Democratic, liberal assumption.”
So the G.O.P. field is dominated by smart men willing to play dumb to further their personal ambitions. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to learn that these men are monstrously self-centered.
All of which leaves us with a political question. Most voters are thoroughly fed up with the current narcissist in chief. Are they really ready to elect another?