Allow me to congratulate myself

Posted: Friday, June 02, 2000

What's wrong with America today is the great number of celebrities who are better people than they used to be. This insight came to me in April, when Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, emerged from a meeting with a group of gay Republicans to announce that the meeting had made him ``a better person.''

Commenting on the uplifting nature of his meeting was, in this case, a way of avoiding the need to say anything substantive about his stance on gay rights. But it also carried the annoying suggestion that running for president might be a self-sprucing campaign in which all the rest of us are mere handmaidens to his personal renovation.

More commonly, politicians and public figures assert personal betterment as a way of patting themselves on the back, or explaining away an embarrassment, or asserting a statute of limitations on whatever flaw might have needed bettering-away in the first place.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in dropping out of the New York Senate race, promised to become a better person. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of George, says he became a better person as a result of losing his first campaign, in 1994. Cindy McCain says she became a better person as a byproduct of recovering from an addiction to prescription drugs. And when a state champion high school wrestler in New Jersey was sentenced last month to a year's probation for forcing a 14-year-old teammate to chug five cans of beer in 20 minutes (he threatened a beating if the freshman didn't comply), he told the judge: ``I feel that I've learned from this offense. I also feel I'm a better person for going through this experience.''

Betterment is, of course, a constant boon in sports, which puts a high premium on a fast wash-and-rinse cycle for any performer who goes astray. Friends and family members of both Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker and the choleric Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight have assured us that their recent brushes with opprobrium will make them better people.

Perhaps it's the airy generality of the assertion that is so irritating. In real life, we don't want others to become better people. We want them to do something specific; we want them to stop making cutting remarks or picking their noses or sleeping with interns.

Yet the last month alone offers numerous examples of nebulous moral repair. Martina Navratilova told us she is a better person for having left the pro tour. Beefcake actor Jean-Claude Van Damme confided that his recovery from drug and alcohol problems made him a better person. (And we can see why: It seems he started carousing in the first place because of his enormous guilt over his money and good fortune. But finally he came to see that ``God gave me a great body and it's my duty to take care of my physical temple.'')

Former Supreme Mary Wilson is now a better person than she used to be, despite waging an intense public cat fight with diva Diana Ross over why it was insulting for Ross to offer Wilson only $3 million to join a Supremes reunion tour. Kim Basinger is a better person since becoming a mother. (That, and also, if I'm reading a recent interview correctly, because she won an Oscar. Movie stars, unsurprisingly, excel at the self-betterment that arrives as a side effect of good fortune.)

And then there's Nancy Snyderman, a medical correspondent for ABC News, who recently talked on ``Good Morning America'' about being called away from a family vacation to cover the war in Kosovo. She felt pretty bad about ditching her family, she says, but then again, covering Kosovo made her a better person. (In fact, ``a richer and deeper and better person sitting here today.'')

One feels a bit more sympathetic to those who become better people by fighting affliction. Jacksonville Jaguars tackle Tony Boselli, for example, believes that working his way back from surgery on his right knee is making him a better person. Ted Kennedy Jr. says cancer made him a better person, as does the actor Mr. T.

But hearing about only these cases tends to promote the lie that suffering always makes you nobler. The law of averages alone dictates that some people respond to strong stimuli - defeat or disease or even Oscars or parenthood - by becoming worse people. Literature is replete with figures whose bad fortune embittered rather than ennobled them. What would ``Richard III'' be if Shakespeare had decided to have his king make the best of his disfigurement?

Anyway, when did it become normal for people to congratulate themselves publicly on their moral progress? Any number of religions teach us that it's a great thing to strive to be better. But you can't have become better if you lack the humility to shut up about it afterward.

Marjorie Williams is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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