These literary touchstones primarily warn against leaders’ susceptibility to sycophants. But in a democracy, voters who seek only adulation from their leaders can be equally worrisome.
Flattery of leaders might lead to recklessness, but flattery of the populace can breed complacency. The president’s job is not just to tell us how great and exceptional we are; it’s to motivate us to become even greater, even more exceptional, and to show us how to get there. If Obama has failed on these fronts, upping his suck-up quotient seems unlikely to help.
Indeed, the most disturbing aspect of Giuliani’s comments (and those of his sympathizers) is not the smears against Obama’s motivations; it’s his insinuations about the motivations of Americans more broadly. Is our City on a Hill really so fragile, so devoid of self-esteem, that we need constant, unblemished compliments — spangled with flag pins, whitewashed history books and other ready-made trappings of patriotism — in order to continue our pursuit of exceptionalism?