This acknowledgment isn’t absent from the current drumbeat, exactly. Before positing that the gap between Obama’s self-regard and actual achievements was uniquely wide, for example, Krauthammer allowed that “there’s nothing new about narcissism in politics.” And before asserting that Obama looks in the mirror and sees JFK, not just a future president, Vennochi conceded that there’s “no such thing as a humble politician.”
Given the stakes, however — not to mention the gravity of the accusation — a little more analytical rigor would be nice. Suppose, just for the sake of the argument, that Obama really does look in the mirror and see JFK. Now recall what George W. Bush allegedly said prior to officially launching his first campaign, according to Stephen Mansfield’s 2003 book The Faith of George W. Bush. “I feel like God wants me to run for president,” Mansfield claims Bush told Texas evangelist James Robison. “I can’t explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen . . . I know it won’t be easy, on me or my family, but God wants me to do it.” Remember, too, how Mitt Romney — who may be McCain’s pick for V-P — explained his sons’ lack of military service in August 2007: “One of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected because they think I’d be a great president.” Who’s the biggest narcissist?
And then, finally, there’s the “uppity” problem. In June, MSNBC reporter Courtney Hazlett described Spike Lee’s behavior in a recent spat with fellow filmmaker Clint Eastwood as “uppity.” Hazlett subsequently apologized to Lee, saying she “know[s] words can have a strong impact” and “chose [her] words poorly.” This may strike some readers as an example of craven PC tendencies run amok. The fact remains, though, that the archetype of the uppity black who doesn’t know his or her place is a pernicious one, comparable in tone and impact with that of the greedy Jew or the lazy Mexican. (One usage example from the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, drawn from the 1952 history The Big Change: America Transforms Itself, 1900–1950: “The effect of the automobile revolution was especially noticeable in the South, where one began to hear whites complain about ‘uppity niggers’ on the highways, where there was no Jim Crow.”)
Of course, McCain didn’t call Obama “uppity” in the aforementioned speech. Krauthammer didn’t use the word; neither did Vennochi or Klein. When I asked Vennochi if she’d considered the possible association between her critique and that term, she offered an impassioned “no.” “Over the years I have described any number of white politicians, Democratic and Republican, as arrogant and egotistical,” Vennochi told me via e-mail. “Just go back and read my ’04 columns about John Kerry; or my columns about Mitt Romney, or Bill Weld. So I find the ‘uppity’ storyline not only offensive, but really, really wrong.”
Fair enough. But any time a pundit decides to play amateur psychologist and concludes that Obama has an ego problem, or a narcissism problem, or an arrogance problem, those terms are going to evoke uppityness in a certain segment of readers or viewers or listeners. Here’s how Huffington Post blogger John Ridley put it in June, following former-Bush-consigliere-turned-pundit Karl Rove’s description of Obama as “the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette, that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone”: