22 October, 2006

Michael Crow: anatomy of vanity

This weekend my cuñada handed me a copy of the latest ASU Magazine, suggesting that I write a post on its cover story, a hagiographical career-sketch of the university’s current president, Michael Crow. So I did.

Here is a man with a lot of swing in high places, apparently—and yet he never looks quite bien dans la peau, appearing rather nervous and ill at ease. He's hiding something. The article is remarkable: for one thing, its provenance is deliberately ambiguous, asserting only that 'Melissa Crytzer Fry contributed to the reporting of this story.' Fry (CV here) is of course a hired pen, the type of writer who has shilled propaganda for the great and terrible men of the past millennium.

Crow is painted as the ultimate all-rounder. Not only did he 'excel academically' as a child, he was also 'a high school heavyweight wrestler and a defensive nose-guard on the football team'; former classmate Mark Emmert explains that 'No matter how the game was going to work out, Mike was going to kill himself trying to win. Whatever he's going to do, he is going to do with great panache'. Notice, in this clunky prose, how the emphasis is on the future: things are not happening, but going to happen, as if inevitably. Of course, his childhood excellence—a very American word, which has now been tainted with sharp parody—flourished despite great hardship: his wife sighs proudly, 'Michael went to schools that I gather were fairly rough—a lot of drugs and alcohol—and I think he looked at all of that and basically decided he didn't want to be a part of it. It's one of those choices. You either get sucked in and destroyed by it, or you set yourself apart.'

Crow has an insatiable appetite for knowledge—each week he 'devours up to 25 different magazines' (my italics), and when confronted as a freshman with the riches of the Iowa State University library, he drank lustily:
He knew he couldn't read all the volumes in the collection, so he started in the back stack areas, and tried to read at least one book in each subject area. Methodically, he managed to tackle many of the sections of the library, and incredibly, the map room as well.
Therefore, if you need to know a very little bit about any particular subject, Crow's your man. He has become a fact machine, by his own humble admission: 'I can store facts in huge quantities all the way back, across lots of subjects, and I would use facts to win debates.' An excellent method, one might think—but Crow is one step ahead, for in his mature wisdom he has realised something even more valuable: 'Well, I've learned that the facts aren't always the important thing in the debate. Sometimes it's what people feel.' He is, one suspects, reciting this from a Wonder Years script.

In addition to his intellectual wisdom—or as 'Fry' puts it, 'the zest with which Crow consumes and creates intellectual concepts'—he is a great family-man. He goes hiking and biking with his family regularly, and most sweetly of all, he and his wife 'make a priority of scheduling family nights each week and rate 'family hugs' as one of their favorite activities'. See, Crow may be a genius, but he's not standing aloof on his pedestal—he's just like us folks, an 'all-American guy':
He has a soft spot for relish and mustard-smothered hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and baked beans. He enjoys action movies. He loves his wife and kids. He enjoys cooking on the grill, playing computer video games, road trips. He was a Scout Master for a Boy Scout troop.
Where does he find time for all this homey greatness? Well, 'he often sleeps less than four hours a night'. That's what he claims. The great mythographer Benito Mussolini claimed the same thing, chiding his citizens for their indolent eight-hour nights.

Far from overpowering others with his superior faculties, Crow is gracious enough to accept criticism, for instance from his kids: 'They can say to me whatever they think, they can react in any way, they can criticize me, they can critique me, they can argue with me.' What's more, 'Crow says he hopes to learn and evolve. "I do need to listen more," he agrees, citing a criticism he heard early in his presidency and one for which he takes full ownership.' That's a curious phrase, 'full ownership'—not even criticisms are exempt from triumphant conquest. Crow is master of all, even his own weaknesses—truly the mark of a sublime man.


It might be concluded from this summary that Crow is conceited and arrogant. But I can't help thinking of his pictures, well represented by the one above: his tie politically red, but not too red, his suit approachably navy, and hanging poorly at the right breast. His ugly, chubby attempt at a smile, wholly insincere, and betraying the same unease as that other icon of superficial jollity, Hals' magisterial Cavalier. Is it anxiety or contempt in those narrowed, distant eyes? Or perhaps both? The text is a constant buffet to the man's insecurity, a reassurance of the ego too thinly displaying its desperation. Is this what power does to a man, or has it been there from the start?

This, dear readers, is surely not intended as a character-assassination, despite appearances. I've never met the man, though cuñada has. I would be ready to believe that the massive upheavals he has instigated over the last three years have been largely beneficial to the university. And no doubt some of the claims made in Fry's article are true. No, it is not a comment on actual character, but a reading of text and image: a scepticism towards the structure of its narrative, and the limning of its persona. Crow, like any other human being, hardly benefits from such hagiography, though perhaps there are still a few who swallow this sort of thing.


Andrew W. said...

It's quite vulgar, isn't it?

The shamelessness of it. Sometimes this is where you'd like some honesty: "Alumni, despite what you've heard, Crow's the man, so keep sending those cheques! Your donations are in good hands."

But the lack of honesty is the hallmark of advertising, isn't it?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, that's exactly the right word, 'vulgar'. My wife said that even if every word were true, she still wouldn't want that article written about her.

It's always pleasurable to look for the cracks in a PR job.

Anonymous said...

It's always pleasurable to look for the cracks in a PR job.

But it is unworthy of you, and a bit mean-spirited. It should perhaps remain a guilty pleasure, indulged in only occasionally, and never wholeheartedly.

And I wonder, a little thought, whether the profile is indeed shameless. Perhaps some prostitutes of the pen know deep down that they are hacks, and perhaps some modern titans know the chests they thump are hollow. Are they not all-the-more pitiable for this?

Pretzel Bender said...

When I first read the article in question, I wondered why ASU couldn't have afforded better writing. A more subtle biography could help calm the agitators and inspire alumni donations.

As currently written, the article deserves the skepticism it inspires in Conrad (and many others!). It dwells on personal details that add bathos rather than depth, replacing what could have been a narrative about Crow's ideas with a bald Horatio Alger "rags to riches" parable.

A lighter touch, next time perhaps?

Andrew W. said...

Hermit, as one of those hacks, I doubt we're deserving of one's pity, unless it's a pity borne our of condescension.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"But it is unworthy of you, and a bit mean-spirited. It should perhaps remain a guilty pleasure, indulged in only occasionally, and never wholeheartedly."

Well, I do indulge only occasionally. Is there anything which one should do unwholeheartedly? Mean-spirited, I confess; but it is not all jest, and I think there is genuine value in deflating (even if here, where hardly anyone will read it) the egos of the powerful.

Yusef Asabiyah said...

These magazines are sales brochures... they are selling an image of a life... and the life of this man is the kind of life which the market favors... the image which finds buyers...this magazine article is typical, it's normal... which made me wonder why this particular one caught your attention.

Uke Xensen said...

"Pas bien dans la peau" describes his look in that photo perfectly.

Did you ever see the movie On the Town? It contains a profile of a character called "Miss Turnstile" that seems very similar to this one.

Anonymous said...

"I think there is genuine value in deflating... the egos of the powerful."

I certainly agree, but it just didn't seem to me (from an outsider's perspective) that Crow and his unfortunate hagiographer were the kind of towering figures who deserved to have your considerable talents employed so incisively against them. But, on reflection, it was more than a little presumptuous of me to say that it was "unworthy" of you - please take it as a compliment to the overall excellence of your blog, which I have been enjoying for some time now.

"Is there anything which one should do unwholeheartedly?"

I am by nature skeptical and reserved, and thus generally reluctant to engage in anything wholeheartedly. I am, however, willing to entertain the possibility that this is a character flaw.

a little thought, I am occasionally a paid hack myself (though in the field of politics, not PR), and I certainly do not think the 'communications' profession itself is necessarily contemptible. But I do think that to engage in it knowing it is a bit shameful is somehow worse than simply to be mediocre and unaware of it. I can only hope that I will one day attain a height from which I can say this condescendingly - and I hope that by then I will have the good grace not to do so. Sorry if I gave any offense.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Wow, a lot of comments!

Yusef: "why this particular one caught your attention."

Good question. Maybe it seemed excessive even for its genre; maybe, on the other hand, it was chosen for its representativeness.

Uke: Thanks. No, I haven't seen it.

Hermit: I do take it as a compliment, gratefully received. I hope you will continue to enjoy what I write. In actual fact, I do share your reluctance to a whole heart: I think this blog is a testament to my unwillingness to write about any subject wholeheartedly, or at least wholebrainedly.