Sucking up has always been part of Washington culture. In the Trump era, it’s a sport.

0
8

By Roxanne Roberts,

Yann Kebbi for The Washington Post

We come to praise Caesar, not bury him.

Flattery — also known as complimenting, sucking up and brown-nosing — has always been a part of life in Washington. Laughing a little too loud at a politician’s joke. Loudly applauding a boilerplate speech. Offering a toast that goes on a bit too long.

But in the past 18 months, what was once nuanced praise has metastasized into obsequious fawning. Too much is never enough. Superlatives are tossed out like Mardi Gras beads on Fat Tuesday. This town, it seems, is now drunk on ego and hyperbole.

Consider President Trump’s infamous Cabinet meeting last year that managed to unnerve even the most jaded political insiders for its unapologetic unctuousness. Vice President Pence kicked things off (calling serving Trump “the greatest privilege of my life”) and, one by one, members of Trump’s inner circle paid homage to their leader: “On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people,” gushed chief of staff Reince Priebus, who was fired a month later.

Members of President Trump's Cabinet met on June 12, 2017 at the White House.

Or recall this tweet posted in September by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Trump addressed the United Nations: “In over 30 years in my experience with the UN, I never heard a bolder or more courageous speech.”

And last month, a group of Republican House members sent a letter to Stockholm nominating Donald Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize. The on-again, off-again talks with the United States and North Korea are back on and fans of the president say he already deserves to win. “Everyone thinks so,” Trump told reporters, “but I would never say it.”

This president, perhaps more than any of his modern predecessors, encourages flattery. He likes it, he expects it, and he seems to eat it up.

“People think if you kiss the guy’s a--, you’ll get what you want,” Anthony Scaramucci, a New York pal who briefly served as White House communications director told the Financial Times last month. “But it is not as simple as that. Trump likes to establish mutual respect.”

The question is: Does the president believe all the praise? And does it matter?

“Putin says, ‘Trump is brilliant,’” Trump explained at a 2016 campaign rally. “I love it when he says I’m brilliant. . . . I don’t know if he means it or he doesn’t mean it. I don’t care. I like it, okay?”

Flattery is as old as time and as constant, a direct appeal to our hopes and our vanity.

But, as the Greeks warned, flattery can lead to hubris. And hubris, as the Founding Fathers knew all too well, can lead to revolution.

“The culture of the framers was anti-flattery,” says Richard Stengel, author of “You’re Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery.” “They were revolting and rebelling against a hereditary monarchy, where flattery was ingrained in the structure of those societies.”

Which is why George Washington received what they considered the most humble, unadorned title possible: “Mr. President.”

Fast forward two centuries to our nation’s capital, where everyone is equal but some are more equal than others.

“When it comes to flattery, Washington D.C. is in some ways closer to the courts of Renaissance Europe than it is to our modern era,” Stengel wrote in 2000, when his book was published. “The president is the king, and he is surrounded by all manner of nobles and gentry, ranging from senators and congresspeople to lobbyists and the permanent establishment.

The late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, for example, was renowned for his elaborate, often excessive kissing up. “He would overdo all this flattery when you knew he basically didn’t mean a word of it,” Bill Clinton said at Holbrooke’s 2011 memorial service — describing Holbrooke’s attempts to ingratiate himself in a charming if insincere manner.

Holbrooke’s over-the-top style used to be an exception in Washington; today it is par for the course. In 2018, there are not enough adjectives in the world; a parade of people vie for the deepest bow.

A book party is no longer a celebration of a job well done; the author is now the “voice for our times,” as one hostess said at a recent gathering. Philanthropists are not merely generous; they are “the new Medicis.” What once passed for spirited dinner conversation has become, if the guest list includes a high-ranking politician or billionaire, a round robin of escalating encomiums.

Most people understand that all this is, for the most part, a whopping pile of bull manure.

“There are two types of flattery,” says Jane Hitchcock, a novelist and social observer who grew up around the 1 percent.

One is the kind of flattery that craves recognition from a notable person. The other, she says, is transactional flattery, which requires the person sucking up to be “much more artful” when they’re asking for something: “Let me tell you how great you are — and, by the way, could you vote for my pork-barrel bill?”

In October, Ricardo Rosselló, the governor Puerto Rico, lavished praise on the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria despite a critical lack of power, food or medical care.

“I want to thank you on behalf of the people of Puerto Rico for your leadership, for your team’s leadership, and for having a commitment to stay with the people of Puerto Rico, with the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, here for the long haul,” Rosselló told Trump during a White House meeting.

If Rosselló believed that flattering the president would help get the much-needed aid his island desperately needed, he was wrong. (A report out last week estimates that more than 4,000 people — thousands more than the official estimate of 64 — died due to botched and inadequate relief efforts.)

Instead, it convinced Trump that he did a great job. “I give ourselves a 10,” the president told reporters during that meeting.

Foreign leaders have adopted the same strategy with exaggerated signs of respect and red-carpet extravaganzas. Trump appeared to enjoy these trips enormously, bragging about the sword dance in Saudi Arabia, the military parade in France and the lavish ceremony in China. “Magnificent,” Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“Sophisticated people say, ‘I see through the flattery, but the fact he’s flattering me means he’s paying deference to me and my position,’” says Stengel. “Everybody gets that — except Donald Trump. He has no irony about the flattery he needs to succor his ego. He eats it up as if it were absolutely genuine.”

But is any of the flattery working on Trump? For all the compliments thrown his way, he has failed to reward most of the flatterers with any substantial economic or policy concessions.

Public affairs consultant Roy Pfautch hosted a dinner honoring Japanese Ambassador Shinsuke Sugiyama this week, the kind of VIP social event that blurs the line between flattery, networking and friendship.

“The social concourse allows you to know people beyond their official titles,” says Pfautch. So he talks to them as husbands, wives, parents — in short, as human beings instead of just another elected official. “That is a very direct form of flattery.”

Even the most powerful people crave to be admired for their personal charms, and so Pfautch doesn’t shy from flattery. “It’s been part of life since Adam and Eve,” he says. “Everyone says, ‘I’m not flattering you.’ Well, why not flatter? Flattery does not have to be a negative word. It can be a cognitive dimension to build relationships: You find something that you can ennoble the person with, that you can grace their spirit.”

Like any other art form, there’s a trick to doing it well: A specific, measured compliment is almost always believed and can be real kindness; generalized fawning less so.

In fact, excessive sucking up can be insulting — as if the recipient isn’t smart enough to distinguish between a sincere compliment and ridiculous overkill. At a recent D.C. gala, one high-profile philanthropist said he’s not much of a fan of the whole ego dance because he doesn’t believe most of what they are saying anyway.

You’d think that insecure people are the most susceptible to flattery because they need it the most. You would be wrong. In fact, people with an inflated sense of self worth are more likely to believe compliments because they already think they’re great. According to the 1999 study called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, incompetent people are most likely to overestimate their abilities because they don’t know enough to realize their mistakes.

And powerful people are often overly praised and their missteps minimized, especially in work environments where personal relationships are valued over titles or hierarchy, according to political scientist Xavier Marquez. Flattery becomes a survival skill, to get or keep a job.

Veterans of Capitol Hill who spent decades on the receiving end of flattery and praise — earned and unearned — from staff, colleagues, administration officials, lobbyists say that the president would be wise to break out of the bubble of yes men.

Survival in Washington requires enough self-awareness to distinguish between the sincere and the suck-ups, says former senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, who spent 18 years in Washington.

“Flattery, in itself, is nice stuff,” he says. Simpson says he learned to “tell the difference between the phony b------s and the true people. A politician should be able to figure that out.”

Former congressman John Dingell of Michigan, who served in the House a record 59 years, says he didn’t get distracted by D.C. culture of flattery. “I never really had much time for that nonsense. I was trying to get things done, not polish the apple.” He credits the nuns at the Catholic school he attended in Michigan for his aversion to what he calls “lickspittles.”

“I was never permitted to think how important I was,” Dingell says.

He saw his colleagues in the upper chamber a bit differently: “Senators have all got these gigantic egos,” says Dingell. “There is less of it in the House.”

Simpson begs to differ: There is, he says, no shortage of self-regard among the 535 elected officials on Capitol Hill — no matter which chamber they serve in. “There are enough egos there to float battleships.”

At the end of the day, none of this groveling matters if the object of all this attention has a coterie of trusted family, friends and advisers who will tell them the truth — especially about themselves. Simpson had a kitchen cabinet of about a dozen people he could count on to be honest. “You need staff members who say, ‘Al, you’re full of crap.’ That’s what you want.”

“If you believe your own press, your time here is limited,” says Dingell. “Very few guys survive that kind of poison in their soup.”

© The Washington Post Company

Flattery has always been a part of life in Washington, but in the last 18 months it has metastasized into obsequious fawning.