May 31, 2009
By Paul Shlichta

Let us consider the mega-ego, a sub-species of humanity that has always been with us, and flourishes today in America. We know them from the media and from our surroundings.

Every village tavern has its old soak who, between drinks, will rant for hours, solving all of the world's problems in a loud confident voice. But occasionally, such a man becomes influential, or even a celebrity, and his cocksure pronouncements are listened to seriously. He gladly drinks in this adulation and his overnourished ego swells.

History is full of mega-egos, all too often as conquerors and dictators. Judging from his writings and the memoirs of his associates, Hitler was a classic case. Roosevelt was probably another. I have had the privilege of being in the audience of a few of the more eminent ones:

Sometime in the late 1950's, Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, First Viscount of Alamein, paid a visit to the California Institute of Technology. Since no auditorium was big enough to hold the expected crowd, his address was held in the athletic stadium. The General strode out and, after the applause, announced that, instead of talking about El Alamain or WWII or present world affairs, he would review and correct the legends about himself. He then proceeded to set the record straight: what he said to the cab driver about Rommel was true, what he supposedly said to Churchill was not, and so on, legend by legend. Two hours later, the crowd staggered away with more Montgomeriana than they could digest. Had they wanted more, he could have gladly accommodated them.
Just before the 1972 election, I visited some liberal friends near Boston who puckishly dragged me to a McGovern rally, where the featured speaker was to be John Kenneth Galbraith, whom George Will recently credited with turning liberalism into "a doctrine of condescension". As my hosts well knew, I loathed Galbraith and was therefore in something of a panic. Suppose I found that, when I saw and heard him in person, I actually liked the man. My fears proved groundless. He came out and talked down to his audience and explained to them, in little words so that they could understand, why any sane person would prefer McGovern to Nixon. I walked away, relieved that he had proven even more smugly detestable than I had dared to hope.
One Saturday morning, I tuned in to LA's cultural radio station, into the middle of an interview. For half an hour, the anonymous celebrity condescendingly explained what Eisenhower should have done, what blunders Johnson had made, and what the country should do now. I knew I was listening to a truly wonderful mega-ego and went down the list. He couldn't be Galbraith or, from the lack of accent, Kissinger. I finally concluded that he must be Gore Vidal. I was right.
These examples demonstrate the surprising fact that mega-egos need not be stupid. Sometimes they are, sometimes they are experts in one field who think they are experts in everything, and in a few cases they can be brilliant. They usually have at least a sly cunning that, if overlooked, can enable them to triumph over their intellectual betters. Their principle characteristics, whether they are dimwits or geniuses, are a swollen self-image and an unshakable confidence in their omniscience.

Admittedly, narcissists have the same characteristics. To misquote Dryden:

"Mega-egos are sure to narcissists close allied

And thin partitions do their bounds divide."

However, they can easily be distinguished by their reaction to criticism. Narcissists become touchy and defensive while mega-egos patronizingly dismiss your stupid lack of appreciation of their wisdom.

Mega-egos are by no means the worst egotists. Indeed, their avidity for the admiration and praise of others -- a warped desire which theologians call "human respect" -- really betrays a touching humility; they do care what others think of them. True, they can do considerable damage, but other types are more dangerous. An underdeveloped ego, such as Nixon's, can wreak havoc because of its tortured insecurity. At the other end of the spectrum, far beyond the capacities of a mere mega-ego, too intelligent and too self-confident to need the adulation of the mob, lies the giga-ego. Quiet, unobtrusive, and utterly sure of himself, he can do immeasurably more harm than a pack of mega-egos.

I think I met a giga-ego once. In 1956, at a luncheon meeting, I heard a talk by Justice William O. Douglas. He was no Montgomery. He spoke quietly and modestly, not about himself but about judicial issues, with compelling competence and authority. At the question period, I asked, "Since all rights have limits, such as human sacrifice being beyond the limit of freedom of religion, do you have any rule or standard for deciding what those limits are?" He looked at me searchingly for a moment, and then said emphatically, "No!" I felt that we completely understood each other. He sensed (correctly) that I had meant "how do you dare to judge such cases; do you have any standard, besides your own opinion?" and he had in effect replied, "I am the standard. I will set the limits as I see fit!"

I felt that, despite his affable manner, he was capable of great evil. My intuition was vindicated years later, when I learned how, as the true architect of the Roe vs. Wade decision, he had concluded that "the country was ready for abortion" and had skillfully manipulated each of his fellow justices to attain his goal. (If you think I'm exaggerating, read pages 165-189 of The Bretheren, by Woodward and Armstrong.)

Since then, like an astronomer patiently scanning the skies for a supernova, I have been searching for another giga-ego of the Douglas magnitude. Dare I mention George Soros?

But to get back to mere mega-egos: the celebrities are just the tip of the iceberg. Every university has its share, easily recognized by a certain classroom swagger, theatrically emphatic voice, and a rock star's self-awareness. There are mega-ego business executives, attorneys, and even engineers. A major engineering firm in southern California, famous for its meticulous work and scrupulously clean desks, required each engineer to have a set of the Founder's books on how-to-do everything-and the poor devils were interrogated regularly to make sure they were memorizing the sacred texts.

The highest concentration of mega-egos is in the literary world, especially in journalism. Columnists, after all, are paid to be omniscient, or at least to seem so. And the mega-egos among them really believe in their infallibility and bestow their most casual opinions as if they had just received them from God on Mount Sinai. Consider Michael Moore, whose total confidence in his own rightness makes him contemptuously oblivious to any facts that refute him. Another is Maureen Dowd. At her best, she can write well and be shrewdly perceptive. But more often than not, she sinks to the level of the aforementioned village sot's female counterpart-the back-fence gossip, of limited intelligence but unlimited self-confidence, who knows the "truth" about everyone in town and declares it in a loud triumphant bray.

One would think that mega-egos would abound in politics; however, they are rarely in the front ranks. I think this is because (thank God) the public can eventually see through most mega-egos so that they usually attain only a limited cult following. Therefore, mega-egotism is often a third party phenomenon. Ralph Nader and Ross Perot are gorgeous examples-and oops, I almost forgot Lyndon LaRouche. However, as Roosevelt proved, there is no presidential glass ceiling for mega-egos.

Congress is virtually a game preserve for mega-egos, or rather an incubator for producing them. After all, when you are required to pass judgment on a wide variety of legislative topics and to repeatedly pose before your constituency as an expert on all of them, it's forgivable if you begin to believe in your own omniscience. I'm not talking about Nancy, who seems to verge on derangement, but rather about amiable jackasses like Joe Biden.

Finally, what about Joe's new boss, the POTUS? His inflated self-image has induced me and others to classify him as a narcissist. But is he instead a Rooseveltian mega-ego?

I don't think it matters. In either case, the self-idolizing overconfidence leads to a reckless irresponsibility that resembles a toddler in control of a bulldozer. (Think of Roosevelt's confidence that he could 'handle' Stalin.) The hunger for praise entails a vulnerability to manipulation by associates or even adversaries. The two pathologies differ only in determining which buttons a manipulator has to push.

In either case, you'd better buckle up. It's going to be a bumpy ride.