Anatomy of Congressional Narcissism
Our bloated governments lead public officials to hubris, which leads to scandal.


Victor Davis Hanson

I think the syndrome works out something like this — quite aside from the enormous power that our elected officials now wield, as government grows and budgets explode. A candidate gets used to seeing his picture and his name all over his campaign literature and in the media. Once he is elected, this media exposure is amplified by the lavish public subsidies he has a hand in allocating, and enhanced by a pack of “aides” and “consultants” who, for reasons of job security, must reassure the official that he is smart, dynamic, witty, youthful, attractive, and in general deserving of the sort of adulation he receives.

Add in the subsidized newsletter his office regularly sends out listing the legislator’s latest res gestae — the eponymous naming of a ten-mile stretch of federal highway or a community center — and the sense of self only magnifies. Apparently no assistant dares remind his boss that doctors do not see operating rooms named after them for brilliant brain surgery, effective professors do not lecture in eponymous classrooms, and sanitation men do not drive about in garbage trucks emblazoned with their names. In America, when an individual wants his name on a university building or above a hotel entry, he usually pays for it on his own dime. Only in state and national politics do officials believe they merit Roman-like inscriptions for simply doing their jobs.

A key force multiplier is the sudden irrelevance of money. Everything for the contemporary official is free: free air travel, free use of a car, free food and entertainment through generous expense accounts — free almost everything. That cocoon ensures that the elected official’s anxieties and worries are not those of his constituents, who despair when gas hits $4.23 a gallon, or when a half-gallon of milk costs $5 at the Stop & Shop, or when a mediocre private college can charge more than $20,000 a year for tuition, room, and board. The result is that our elected officials often make a quantum, but quite false leap: Not only do I not pay, but I should not pay for anything — given my prestige, power, influence, Weinerian chest, or Edwardsian sexual flair.

The result is usually a Greek tragedy of the Sophoclean brand: A candidate who once earnestly sought to serve his constituents first becomes an insular apparatchik, then comes to believe himself a Louis XIV sort of living deity — at each step of his apotheosis, inviting ever greater retribution from the goddess Nemesis.

The remedy? The cost-cutters in Washington should vastly trim congressional and administration staffs, public-relations budgets, free mailing, and self-aggrandizing brochures. There is absolutely no need for any living member of Congress to have his name on any public project — period. The damage wrought by term limits is not as great as the damage wrought by this new sense of royalty enjoyed by perennial incumbents. Neronian overseas junkets are redundant — we already pay billions for State Department and military officials to be the government’s frontline eyes and ears abroad.

If such anger seems puerile or irrelevant, it at least has historical support. Whether in Athens,  Rome, Venice, or London, decay has usually begun when state officials behaved like monarchs. At this late hour, even symbolic resistance against the new public royalty is vital, since officials who believe they are monarchs usually spend other people’s money as if they were monarchs.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institutionthe editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.


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