You probably know the type. Character in the office, around the neighborhood, in your family who manages to involve everybody around them in their personal dramas?
Usually it's the case that all they want is to talk about it. They don't even want you to listen, just sit there and pretend to listen. You put on a sympathetic ear, make soothing and reassuring noises from time to time, give them a shoulder to cry on, they're happy. We all need to let go like that from time to time. For these types, though, letting go is just about their entire method of communication. All they talk about is their dramas, at work, at home, wherever they're engaged with other people. Their lives are one drama after another, with themselves as the plucky protagonist, sometimes the victim, sometimes the hero or heroine, always put upon in some way. Somebody is always doing them wrong, and that's how they draw you in. It sounds like they want your advice. Don't give it to them.
All they really want is validation. If your advice suggests in any way that they are not the injured party, either because they're the one doing the injuring or because as far as you can tell there was no injury inflicted at all, or if your advice doesn't encourage them to continue the drama, you become the bad guy. You just don't understand. You are on his side or her side. You're just as dumb or mistaken or corrupt or blind! If your advice suits them, if it sounds to their ears like validation, if they can take it in a way that gives them permission or encouragement to continue the drama by doing what they wanted to do anyway, then watch out, because either you've now become their new best friend and you're going to have to sit through more of this or you are going to wind up a new player on their personal stage, the next scene in their drama will begin with the line, "Well, Lance said..."
Lance probably didn't say any such thing. They hear what they want to hear.
As I said, all of us need to cry in our beer sometime and we take comfort from the company of the bartender standing there polishing a glass and looking at the ceiling while we go on and on as if he's actually listening. And that's where we get into trouble with these types. When they start, we assume they're just being like us and other people we know.
First, because we know we need a sympathetic ear now and then, we let ourselves get drawn in on the principle of treating others the way we want to be treated. Second, we've been here and done that before, with friends and family and even perfect strangers, sat and listened because we know people need us to, and giving comfort and support is an act of kindness, when it's not an act of love, and we want to be kind. Life is sorrow. You tell me your troubles and I'll tell you mine and together we'll get through the night. But by the time we realize that this type isn't doing what we expected, that they aren't in fact gathering sympathy and strength, they're gathering material, storing up ammunition, performing and looking for applause, we've been drawn in. We've been written into the script. We're either their new best friend or worst enemy or a supporting character of some kind in the ongoing soap opera of their lives.
Since most of these types are in reality rather passive---which is often why they are the type they are, in the re-telling of their lives as a drama they become dramatic themselves. They do things, instead of having things done to them, or feel as though they're doing things, instead of feeling as though things have been done to them---the worst they do is steal time from us, and what were we going to do with that half hour or hour or hour and a half we spend listening to their tales of woe, anyway?
Occasionally, they cause us minor embarrassment. We're forced to explain things we'd rather not explain or never thought we'd have to explain. It'll happen that they presume upon our sympathy. They'll think that lending a sympathetic ear means more than we intended it to mean. Or we'll find ourselves confronted by another person who's been written into the script that no, we didn't say that about him, no, we don't think she's what the type said we said we think she is, no, we didn't tell the type to do that, no, we didn't encourage them not to do it either.
Once in a while, though, you'll run across a more active version of the type, a character who isn't content to just a player in their own soap opera, he has to be the writer and director as well, and he wants you to have a major role, a big, juicy part with lots of chances to emote, although don't expect that that part is going to be yourself. You'll play whatever character he needs to you play.
I had a friend back in college who was always scheming to make money. He wasn't fussy about how he made it either. I've written about his plan to make a dirty movie financed by the son of a mobster. Charlie sold pot, fenced stolen stereos out of his dorm room, loaned money that he didn't necessarily expect would be repaid in cash---he was willing to work out deals to be repaid in kind, which was, I think, the basis of his sex life. He was the hall bookie and he played cards for what was for a bunch of college kids pretty high stakes. I don't think he cheated, but he was far and away a better poker player than anyone he chose to get in a game with and the result was as he often said later like taking candy from a baby.
He also liked to involve himself in other people's romantic lives, often taking delight in arranging the romances he got involved in. He liked bringing couples together and if you're thinking this is one of the reasons I was friends with him, you're right. Charlie was Pandarus to my Troilus several times. He was a theater major and he once cast a girl who couldn't act in a play he was directing and I was playing the lead in because he figured, correctly, that she and I would hit it off. Another time he got me a part-time job at a place where he was the manager---he was later fired for skimming from the till---because one of the girls who worked there struck him as just my type. That didn't work out quite as planned because I wound up with another girl who'd been hired because she was just his type. Charlie was hurt, but he got over it in a hurry, partly because he was glad to have another couple under his wing to manipulate, partly because it was his nature to move from one scheme to another without a look back and he quickly hired another girl who was just his type.
Charlie's scheming and manipulations were often well-intentioned. He was happy for the couples he brought together. But he could be malicious, too. He liked bringing couples together, but he liked it best when one member of that couple, particularly the female member, was already part of another couple. And he was convinced that people were happiest when they were misbehaving. It was his guiding philosophy that rules, conventions, inhibitions, long-term habits, and even someone's personal sense of right and wrong were so much bullshit and that what any individual most wanted in life was to be freed of all that bullshit so they could just do whatever they were moved to do at the moment. Which is why the crowning achievement of his career as a yente was when he arranged---or thought he'd arranged---the lesbian seduction of a straight girl who was not just dating a guy but was engaged to him.
And he was crazy with delight when what followed from that was a threesome, a double seduction of another supposedly straight girl by the first two.
Now here's the thing.
The reason I knew about this is that Charlie told me.
And that's the only reason I knew.
I knew Charlie was a gossip. But this story struck me as so far too good to be true that I was immediately convinced that it wasn't true. That's when it dawned on me that in addition to being a gossip he was quite likely a liar. But it also occurred to me that he wasn't a liar in the sense of the word I was used to thinking of. I'd always believed that all liars knew they were lying. There were a lot of things I "knew" about other people at school and about Charlie's own past that I knew only because Charlie had told me and all of a sudden a lot of those things became too incredible to believe anymore. But Charlie, it seemed to me, quite clearly believed them himself. I'll never be sure, but I think that stories mattered more to him than reality and that once he thought up a good story, that story replaced the truth in his mind. A better word than liar for what Charlie was is fabulist. Charlie lived in his stories, he lived for his stories. He did and said a lot of what he did and said for the fun of telling the story later, and if the story needed embellishment to make it a good story, he embellished.
Of course he was playing with people's lives with his stories and this was unconscionable, but I realized something else when I realized that Charlie's stories were mostly fiction, people weren't real to him in any ordinary sense. He wasn't real to himself. People were real to him in the way fictional characters are real to the rest of us. We can care for characters in books and movies and on TV, even love them, but our primary interest in them is in how well they entertain us. Charlie loved and cared for people as long as they were entertaining and he was willing to make us all entertaining if we weren't being so in our own rights. This is a way of saying that we were all characters in the movie or novel that was taking place in his head and the thing about characters in movies and novels is that they are all there to serve the story. In a way, all the characters in a story are the same character because they all have the same job to do, express the author's intentions and carry his themes and plot along. In Hamlet, all the other characters are extensions of Hamlet and Hamlet himself is a device for delivering the words, words, words that tell us Hamlet's story.
Charlie was writing the novel of his life, or filming the movie version, or both, and so Charlie was a character to himself and all the rest of us were supporting characters, and just like the supporting characters in Hamlet, we were all extensions of the hero. We were all versions of Charlie. Which was not flattering when you consider that Charlie was basically corrupt and dishonest, a thief, a cynic, a liar, and a cheat, not to mention a glutton for food, money, sex, and pleasure. And it was dangerous, because Charlie was as charming as he was manipulative. It wasn't just that he thought you were just like him, he assumed that you were doing what he would have done in your shoes and he had a knack for talking you into doing it. It didn't matter, though, if you resisted, because even if you weren't going along with one of his schemes, he believed you were, and when he told the story later, as he always did, it would sound as though you had gone along with it.
Just by being in Charlie's company, though, you were involved in his schemes, because you were giving him encouragement and validation with your sympathetic ear or, as was often the case, your open ear which he simply assumed was sympathetic. Then, even when you'd been careful to distance yourself from one of his schemes, you could still find yourself an accomplice after the fact. Because he had no shame and no idea that you might be a person in your own right with your own motivations, wishes, and beliefs and not a character in his story he didn't try to hide anything. That play, the one in which I got the girl onstage and off? Charlie used all the money we took in, which was supposed to pay off bills, with the remainder going back to the student government treasury, to buy pot for the cast party. I wasn't in on this scheme, and I didn't know about it---I didn't even smoke any of the pot, because, believe this or not, I never did, I never liked it in exactly the way I've never liked beets, that's all---but I showed up at the cast party, of course, and people couldn't help talking about where all the first-rate weed had come from, and so I was put in the position of having to choose between being an accomplice, being what would appear to everybody else as a self-righteous prig and walking out, and being a snitch.
Charlie, I learned later, from Charlie himself, naturally, stole and sold off some of the audio equipment from backstage to pay back some of the money to the student government.
Which brings me to Rod Blagojevich.
This isn't a court of law, the presumption of innocence doesn't have to apply. I think it's clear that Blagojevich is guilty of at least trying to do most of the things he's accused of. This even seems to be the heart of the defense his few remaining friends and allies are trying to muster, that all he did was try to be corrupt. Since nobody went along with it, he didn't succeed and therefore all he's guilty of is a lot of loose talk.
A lot of very loose talk.
Last month, when I wrote about Blagojevich's hair, which I still think is very dishonest hair---it has outstanding warrants on it in at least five states---our old friend Chris the Cop, who, having worked undercover for years back when he was on the job, has plenty of experience with stupid criminals, wrote:
Y'know, as a (retired) cop, I did/do rarely wonder why someone did something horrendous (i.e., REALLY STUPID) but only rarely. This would be...one of those times. Can ANYBODY explain to me what in the %$%$##
this guy Blagojevich was thinking/has been thinking/is thinking? When he KNEW the feds were listening and STILL kept running his mouth? Didn't he notice that the US Attorney, Fitzgerald doesn't give a rat's ass about who he goes after?
Didn't he see that if Fitzgerald wasn't scared to go after Scooter Libby, taking down a governor would be like doing Club Med?
I can't explain it, of course. I don't know Blagojevich. But reading over the transcripts of the the tapes that have been released and following the story as it's been unfolding, I am reminded a lot of Charlie. Naturally there are differences between Blagojevich and him, the main one being that Charlie was not a governor and didn't have the power and opportunity to cause mischief on a grand scale. Important people did not come to him because they had to deal with him and find themselves caught up in his schemes despite themselves. And although Charlie was corrupt and could be malicious, he was also kind, generous---often without expecting any generosity back; every act of beneficence on his part wasn't part of a quid pro quo---good-natured, and decent-hearted enough to wish most people well and happy. Much of his scheming was meant to help his friends or to give them a good time. For all I know, in his personal life Blagojevich is all those things too. But it appears that in his public life he is and has always been malicious, self-serving, and corrupt. The way he is like Charlie, though, is that he seems to be living in a story or a movie in his own head too. Other people are characters in that story and just as in Charlie's story and in Hamlet's story those characters are extensions of the hero, Rod Blagojevich. Like Charlie, then, he's operating on the assumption that everybody else is just like himself, malicious, self-serving, and corrupt. Now, when Charlie assumed you were just like him, that meant that besides being corrupt, you were also capable of kindness, decency, and even a form of honesty, and he allowed for that in his storytelling. There's no such mitigation in Blagojevich's assessments of people. The only reason he can come up with to explain why you aren't going along with one of his dirty deals is that you're working on a dirty deal of your own.
If that's the way he is then that would explain his brass-balled stupidity. The reason he didn't keep his mouth shut is that he assumed that everybody listening to him felt and thought and acted just as he did. Just by listening to him, however disapprovingly, however much you were appalled by him, however obvious you made it that you weren't interested, you were encouraging him and validating him, because that's what he needed from you. He wrote you into the script playing the role he needed you to play. So this is another thing he appears to have in common with Charlie. No matter what you actually did and said, when he tells the story, you come out sounding like a character in his personal drama, which means you come out sounding like a version of Rod Blagojevich.
In short, just by being in the same room with Blagojevich you get caught up in his schemes at least to the point of having other people wonder about you. And the ironic part of it is that the more you try to disentangle yourself the more people will wonder. The best protection is to avoid ever being in the same room with a guy like this. If I'd thought to, I could have steered pretty well clear of Charlie, and after college I ignored or begged off his invitations to get together, something I'm a little sorry about, because, I heard too late, Charlie died young, broke and alone, after years of poor health and early widowerhood. But if you're in politics in Illinois, and you reach a certain level, you can't steer clear of the governor.
The Washington Post had an interesting story about how Barack Obama recognized Rod Blagojevich for what he was very early on in their almost parallel careers and did an excellent job at keeping Blagojevich at a distance. That lasted right up until the fall.
Then Obama went and got himself elected President.
Types like Blagojevich, like Charlie, like the people I mentioned up top, the passive sort and the more active, will write you into their personal dramas, no matter how careful you are. Most people of this type work on very small stages, playing to very small audiences, and most people of this type only want attention and validation. Blagojevich has been open, even boastful, about what he wants, money and power, and he's been playing on a very large stage that's just gotten larger. His audience is now the whole country. He's written Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel into his story and with his appointment of Roland Burris he's added the entire Democratic membership of the United States Senate to his cast of characters.
Besides the fact that he appears to have no legal grounds for doing it, Harry Reid shouldn't have decided to deny Burris his seat. (I'm amazed Burris accepted the appointment, considering, but vanity and ambition can trump principle and self-respect in the best of people.) It was a way of walking back into the room with Blagojevich, a room Reid had already been in when he talked to him about who should be appointed. There was nothing inherently wrong in the Senate Majority leader giving a governor his opinion on the matter. There just was no way that talking to this governor wouldn't cause people to wonder. Better to let Burris take the seat and then look for a candidate to challenge him in a primary than to give Blagojevich more material for his screenplay.