PRIDE IS the first of the deadly sins, and it sometimes seems to be the first prerequisite of a career in public life. No surprise there: It takes a certain degree of hubris to think yourself qualified to govern others -- and not just to think it privately, but to spend great quantities of money, time, and energy proclaiming it publicly to anyone who will listen. To remain modest and unpretentious while urging voters to elevate you to high office and entrust you with power is a challenge not many elected officials meet. It's a rare politician who is motivated enough to climb the greasy pole, deflecting the ambitions of rivals, without succumbing to the temptations of ego.
Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo: 'Why do a portrait?'
A few words of appreciation, then, for Mario M. Cuomo, who served three terms as New York's governor and was for a while one of the nation's most prominent Democrats, but seems to have come through the experience without suffering a permanent case of swelled head.
The New York Times reports that Cuomo has declined all requests to sit for an official portrait, making him the only New York governor whose likeness is missing from the Hall of Governors in the state capitol at Albany. For 14 years he has refused to pose for an official painting, apparently on the grounds that he finds the whole thing an exercise in vanity. "I went to electric razors so I would not have to look at myself in the morning," Cuomo told the Times.
As a politician, New York's 52nd governor was hardly devoid of self-esteem, but "he intensely disliked personal attention, especially any gathering focused on him," a former aide recalled. Cuomo himself says that the glorification of ex-governors unfairly slights all the men and women who made their accomplishments possible. "Why do a portrait?" he asked. "My view of the governorship is, yes, I was the governor, but whatever good things were done in my 12 years as governor were done by an army of us. The idea of saying, 'Boy, he was terrific, he led us out of the Depression' -- it's not like that."
Some might be tempted to dismiss Cuomo's refusal to have his portrait painted as false modesty, which, unlike the real thing, is just another form of pride. ("Don't be so humble," Golda Meir used to say, "you're not that great.") But Cuomo's reluctance to have himself glorified for the ages in oil and canvas compares favorably with the self-adulation of his successor, George Pataki, who's just thrilled with his portrait. A few months ago, reports the Times, Pataki "gathered friends and supporters at Manhattan's '21' Club for a private showing of the portrait. And he had already asked the artist, Andrew Lattimore, for revisions to his first version."
Why are so many public figures so hungry for the trappings of grandeur? Barack Obama has yet to take office, but he has already set the modern record for political narcissism. Imagine what his homespun hero, Abraham Lincoln, would have made of Obama's presidential campaign, with its faux-Greek columns, triumphal foreign tour, and quasi-presidential seal with the Latin motto. Or of Obama's post-election practice of speaking from behind a lectern adorned with the Great Seal of the United States and an official-looking sign that reads "Office of the President Elect" -- an office that doesn't actually exist under the Constitution.
To be sure, it isn't only politicians who could do with a little more modesty and a little less self-regard. The Boston Globe reported last month that the eminent Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky cancelled an engagement to conduct four concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra because he felt "insulted" and "slighted" by the BSO's actions. "I suffered . . . a moral insult," he fumed. And what had the orchestra done to outrage Rozhdestvensky? It had printed posters promoting his concerts that featured the name of the soloist in larger letters than that of the conductor. Rozhdestvensky is 77, which just goes to show that age guarantees neither maturity nor humility.
In the age of Facebook and "American Idol," it may seem axiomatic that ego is good and self-esteem equals health. But self-idolatry, like all idolatry, corrupts. Whatever else may be said of Cuomo, he knows better than to worship himself. Such humility is out of style these days, but it's a virtue more of us could stand to work on.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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