“Body Man”

It probably doesn’t detract from Obama’s coolness quotient that his personal assistant is actually named “Reggie Love.” But the NYT feature story on Mr. Love makes you appreciate the absurdity of the American demand that the president has to understand ordinary people’s problems. Remember the flap in the 1992 campaign when it became clear that H.W. had never seen a supermarket scanner before, and didn’t know what household staples cost? If Obama or McCain or Hillary know what a gallon of gas or a gallon of milk costs, it’s because some savvy aide put it in a briefing book for them. How many people do you know, after all, who have a “body man”? No double entendres please.

When Mr. Obama makes calls to woo superdelegates, Mr. Love is at his side with a briefing book, dialing the numbers. When an outdoor speech ended on a windy day in Noblesville, Ind., he appeared behind Mr. Obama as he shook hands on the rope line. “Jacket?” he asked, a coat draped at the ready over his arm.

When Mr. Obama dropped food on his tie while eating in the car between stops, Mr. Love was ready with a Tide pen. He always carries one, along with ballpoint pens, and has turned himself into a walking dispensary of Sharpies, stationery, protein bars, throat lozenges, water, tea, Advil, Tylenol, Purell and emergency Nicorette, not to mention his ever-present iPhone, BlackBerry and Canon Rebel XT digital camera.

The royal treatment starts even before the coronation. I imagine this sort of thing is unavoidable. If you’re crazy enough to spend years constantly gladhanding your way around the campaign trail, mouthing platitudes and shielding your real opinions like nuclear secrets, you can hardly be expected to carry your own Tide pen. But I also imagine that after about six weeks of it, I’d begin to demand Van Halen-style concert riders and believe that nothing less was my due. And upon taking office, it only gets worse.

As I write in the book (buy it, damn you):

When a fellow is constantly surrounded by fawning assistants hanging on his every word—when his golden chariot is a modified 747—it might be hard for him to maintain the sense of perspective the Romans sought to instill in their military heroes.

We mortals—most of us, anyway—don’t need a designated ego-deflater to remind us of our unimportance. From the deli counter to the office, we’re confronted on a daily basis with people who don’t think we’re anything special and don’t particularly care what we think. The social environment in which the president operates is radically different, and it’s easy to appreciate how that environment might distort his judgment.

Perhaps only the fabulously wealthy and the fabulously famous live in a milieu as unnatural as does the modern president. Like the president, rock stars, movie stars, famous athletes, and corporate “Masters of the Universe” spend their lives immersed in adulation and surrounded by the trappings of wealth and power. And in 21st-century America, people who have it all should surely have their own syndrome. Thanks to Dr. Robert B. Millman, professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical School, now they do: it’s called Acquired Situational Narcissism.

…. Standard psychology teaches that classical narcissism, with its symptoms of self-absorption, delusions of grandeur, and lack of empathy for others, originates in childhood. But as Dr. Millman sees it, “given the right situation, it [can] happen much later.” It can happen, he says, when a person rises to fame, wealth, and power—and spends an extended period of time in atmosphere of artificial deference:

“When a billionaire or a celebrity walks into a room, everyone looks at him. He’s a prince. He has the power to change your life, and everyone is very conscious of that. So they’re drawn to this person. What happens is he gets so used to everyone looking at him that he stops looking back at them.”

Which is understandable, says the doctor: “why would they feel normal when every person in the world who deals with them treats them as if they’re not?”

Think what you will of our therapeutic culture, but whatever the scientific merit of the syndromes it ceaselessly generates, it’s easy enough to imagine one’s own character getting distorted by the conditions Dr. Millman describes. And there is evidence from experimental psychology that dominance warps judgment. In a series of experiments in 2006, scholars from Northwestern, NYU, and Stanford found that “power was associated with a reduced tendency to comprehend how others see the world, how others think about the world, and how others feel about the world.”

Whatever social power celebrities have over those that surround them—and it’s considerable—the environment in which the president exists is even more unnatural. Rock stars and movie idols can order their functionaries around and buy their own planes, but they can’t send the Seventh Fleet through the Taiwan Strait or bomb Syria. And the stakes are much smaller where Russell Crowe, Lindsay Lohan, or Tom Cruise is concerned. If fame and wealth go to a celebrity’s head, he ends up jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch, no harm done to the wider world. If the president loses his grip on things, there’s rather more at stake…

I’m reminded of a charming story about Jerry Ford, our sanest recent president, and (not coincidentally) our most accidental one.

One day Ford’s dog, Liberty, made a mess on the rug in the Oval Office. A Navy steward rushed to clean it up. “I’ll do that,” Ford said. “No man should have to clean up after another man’s dog.”

Then again, it says something that Ford seemed like a great, down-to-earth guy because he didn’t expect other people to pick up after his dog.

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Posted on May 28, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency | Comments

14 Responses to ““Body Man””

  1. Posted by: Devilbunny - 05/29/2008

    To dodge the subject of your post, I once read a thoroughly enlightening interview with Van Halen in which they explained the origin of the no-x-color M&M’s rule:

    It seems they had a problem with people not reading contracts carefully. This once led to a narrowly-averted stage collapse when the venue didn’t check that their stage could carry the required 25k lbs of weight. The M&M rule arose as a way to identify if the venue actually read the artists’ requirements and carried them out. If it weren’t done, they assumed that the whole thing was unread.

  2. Posted by: Ralph L. - 06/08/2008

    Steve Ford dated a neighbor of mine until his father became VP, when he dumped her to play the (much expanded) field.

    Some Reagan aides found him wiping up the bathroom floor in the hospital after his colon surgery.

    Imagine how bad it is with hereditary monarchs. No wonder Europe was constantly at war.

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