The Magazine

Self-Interest Is Bad?

Enough with the hectoring.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Oh, terrific. Now we have two of them--two presidential candidates, presumptive nominees of their respective parties, who insist they will not rest until they have inspired all of us stick-in-the-mud Americans to reach celestial heights of personal fulfillment by committing ourselves to a life of service. Service to what? Service to .  .  . something or other. The phrase that both John McCain and Barack Obama use is a "cause higher than yourself" or "greater than self" or alternatively a "cause greater than your own self-interest." Whatever the precise wording--for now, let's just use an unpronounceable acronym, CGTYOSI--we'll be hearing it a lot till November.

McCain grabbed it first, years ago. CGTYOSI appears in his first memoir, Faith of My Fathers. In fact, it's the theme of the book, dramatized by the story arc: McCain begins as an impetuous young midshipman resisting the Navy's attempts to "bend [him] to a cause greater than self-interest," and then endures harrowing adversity, rejects the shallowness of his earlier life, and embraces a CGTYOSI. As a candidate, McCain has fastened on the phrase as one of those prefab word-clumps that politicians automatically release when answering a question about this or that. He uses it constantly. "If you've remembered anything I've said," he often tells audiences, "please remember there's nothing nobler than serving a cause greater than your own self-interest." As McCain tells it, that cause is found in AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, and other government agencies that pay people to volunteer. More Americans should have been asked to sign up for those organizations after 9/11, he says. "And as president of the United States in January of 2009, I will ask them to serve again."

Me too, says Obama (as he often does). "When I am president of the United States," he said earlier this month, "I will ask for your service." Both McCain and Obama scold President Bush for not calling Americans to serve a CGTYOSI in the wake of the terrorist attacks in 2001. "After 9/11," says McCain, "I would not have asked Americans to go shopping."

"Instead of a call to service, we were asked to go shopping," Obama points out.

So that's settled: no more shopping next year. But the candidates really are misrepresenting poor President Bush, everyone's punching bag. As far back as 1999, while a presidential candidate, Bush began telling people to serve a CGTYOSI, and he never stopped. He's even said it to Larry King. In an interview days after he was first elected, he told Larry that what he hoped for his daughters above all was that "someday they understand what it means to serve a cause greater than self." And of course he used it after 9/11, over and over again. "We want to be a nation that serves goals greater than self," he said in his 2002 State of the Union, to cite one example. The searchable White House database of presidential pronouncements lists 1,020 uses of the phrase since 2001. That's a lot.

It was inevitable that Obama would cop the phrase--repeating the idea as though it had come to him as a revelation, in front of supporters and journalists who apparently have been hypnotized into believing they've never heard it before. Anyone with a long memory and the patience to listen knows that Obama is truly shameless in this regard. Sometimes his stump speeches sound like a Time-Life greatest-hits compilation of Unforgettable Classic Political Baloney from the '70s, '80s, and '90s, with one cant phrase after another lifted from speeches by Ronald Reagan, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Dole, John Kerry, Ross Perot, George Bush--yes, I said Elizabeth Dole--Jesse Jackson, Howard Dean, Newt Gingrich, everybody. Like most of those phrases ("choose hope over fear," "we'll take this country back"), CGTYOSI hasn't been fresh for years. It wasn't even fresh 43 years ago, when Lyndon Johnson announced, in his inaugural address, that Americans "want to be part of a common enterprise--a cause greater than themselves." Look where that got us.

On first hearing, I suppose, a politician's call to CGTYOSI seems like a nice idea, something uplifting and public-spirited, a way to unite a diverse population. The more you think about it, though, the creepier the phrase becomes, especially when used as a political tactic.