The Emperor’s slip is showing

I wonder how you say ‘hubris’ in Russian.

Did you catch that photo in the newspapers of Vladimir Putin emerging from the Black Sea looking like James Bond, carrying two ancient Greek amphorae? Now, that’s the kind of photo op any politician would eat his left arm to be able to post on his website.

How prescient of the Russian president to have brought along government photographers on his vacation to record his moment of triumph — and on only his third time scuba diving! Gosh, many archaeologists spend their whole careers dreaming of making a discovery like that. Pretty impressive.

And utterly bogus.

Somebody spilled the borscht on Putin’s attempt at public relations. Turns out the 2,000-year old jugs he ‘discovered’ had actually been found during a legitimate archaeological dig and conveniently placed off shore in a couple of meters of water. I wonder how you say ‘hubris’ in Russian.

The word comes from the same place those waterlogged amphorae did — ancient Greece.  It’s derived from the word ‘hybris’ which means ‘wanton presumption toward the gods’. Your grandmother would have called it being ‘too big for your britches’.  There’s a lot of it going around.

Back in 1812, the Emperor of France, King of Italy and master of continental Europe, one Napoleon Bonaparte, decided he was ready to take on Russia. He assembled an army of 500,000 soldiers and, despite the warnings of his top advisors, started marching on Moscow. Later that same year, in the dead of winter, barely 20,000 French survivors staggered back to France.

Hubris one; Bonaparte, no score.

The late and unlamented Muammar Gaddafi adored being photographed in buffoonish comic opera costumes, surrounded by a phalanx of big-bosomed Amazonian bodyguards. He ended up, as the world knows, being hauled, squealing, out of a drainage pipe in the desert.

Mussolini with his chest puffed out like a pouter pigeon; Hitler with his lunatic, rabid dog stare; Mao bobbing like a bloated cork in the Yangtze.

What is it about the siren song of front-page glory that tempts leaders to look so ridiculous so often?

Western leaders are not immune to the disease of hubris.  George (the Dim One) Bush will live on in history, if only for the incredibly tone-deaf photograph that shows him grinning, duded up like a for-real fighter pilot on the deck of an aircraft carrier with a banner reading ‘Mission Accomplished’ behind him. The year was 2003. One hundred and 39 American casualties had been recorded in Iraq. In less than a decade, another 4,000 U.S. troops would die there — not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

And Canadian leaders? That brings us to Lake Okanagan and a press conference in 2000. Stockwell Day is running hard for the Prime Minister’s office.  Actually, he’s riding hard — on a Jet Ski, wearing a skin-tight wetsuit. He slews the Jet Ski up to the dock, flashes a 500-kilowatt Hollywood grin and indicates to reporters that he’s ready to take questions.

It should have worked.  Instead the members of the Fourth Estate all but wet their pants laughing. Instantly, Stockwell Day became the butt of ten thousand jokes from coast to coast to coast. Somebody should have warned him that Canadians don’t do hubris so well.

And from all appearances, neither do the Irish. They just elected Michael D. Higgins as their president. At age 70, short and bald, he’s an unlikely candidate for PR photos.

Mister Higgins, a poet, a politician and a peace activist, was described in the Irish Times as:  “Avuncular, erudite, experienced with the Irish gift for language and tune, a bockety knee and a whiff of diddly-aye for the Yanks.”

I don’t care how he’d look in a wet suit; if I was Irish he’d have my vote.

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