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Thursday, March 17, 2016 12:22 am


Men promising more than they can deliver – again



Some 30 years ago I was moved by the mindless boasting of the Republican blowhard in the White House to write this column, which appeared in the Prejudices series on Aug. 8, 1985. The presidential field at the moment offers us several others of the type, so I thought my reflection on male braggadocio is worth rereading. Edited for length.

“Listen to two or three boys talking among themselves,” advised H.L. Mencken between the wars. “Their gabble is almost wholly made up of boasting.” Things haven’t changed much in 70 years. A neighbor boy, aged five, seldom passes up the chance to remind me that his father is bigger than I am, bigger even than my house. (“Oh yeah?” I am tempted to retort. “Well, my weeds are taller than your dad’s weeds. So there.”)

The fact that this boy’s father is provably smaller than even my house is no deterrent to the boaster. It never is. Mencken concluded that men, among all creatures, are both the most vain and the most idiotic. ...

That men are not made to feel like fools more often is the result of the system of etiquette they have evolved to spare themselves. Joseph Epstein, writing in The American Scholar of his reunions with boyhood pals from Chicago, confessed, “Exaggerations have a way of creeping in.” He recalled how a friend, describing their escape to an all-night poker game at age 17, today puts their winnings at $400. “I recall the figure at closer to $50,” Epstein writes, “but then it may be that his memory is merely allowing for inflation, and I would not think to contradict him.” Most men wouldn’t either. It isn’t so much exposing a lie that one shrinks from, but exposing a friend’s pathetic need to be thought stronger, wiser, meaner, smarter than he is. ...

Boasting is one of the ways male talk differs from female talk, and has usually been assumed to be explainable in terms of the differences between males and females. I’m not sure. For example, I have been interested recently to hear successful younger women boast in essentially traditional male terms of what the delicate would refer to as their sexual activity. I have no reason to suspect that their claims are any less bogus than the ones I am used to making. This is a form of embroidery not associated with women in the past, however, and its appearance suggests that vainglory is the result of male roles rather than male genes.

Boasting, in other words, owes itself to the circumstances of power. Boasting is not something done by the strong, but by those who want or need to feel strong. (If you can do it, as the saying goes, it ain’t bragging.) So we should not be surprised that the boast has become the predominant political idiom. The world these days resembles a playground crowded with angry men, with bouts of bluff between flares of temper [and] violence awaiting any plausible pretext to express itself. Impotence – political, military, economic – is endemic. When a deed is demanded and you do not have one to offer, you invent one.

The boast has dominated political discourse in this country since Vietnam, especially in foreign affairs. (Did not the pain of Vietnam come from the fact that our bully boast – that we could whip anybody – was proved hollow?) Grenada was one such boast; Beirut has been the occasion for several.

No modern president has spoken louder and carried a smaller stick than the ridiculous Mr. Reagan. The rhetorical doom with which he threatens hijackers, leftist peasants and other miscreants reminds me of the taunts of a little boy, sticking out his tongue at a passing bully from safe inside his house. I half-expect him to open his next speech promising retaliation against Arab terrorists with the words, “It’s lucky for you my mom won’t let me come outside.” Lucky for Reagan that Nancy doesn’t let him out; I don’t think he’s ever had the stomach for a fight, even before his operation.

There is little scope in the world for the deeds men dream of, even (maybe especially) those men who run governments. There is a reason why so many more men than women vote for blusterers like Reagan. They are grateful for a leader who makes so much noise by exploding bombs in his speeches that they can’t hear the rest of the world laughing at them in the background.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at


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