Friday, June 3, 2016

Showing off

I guess a guy bearing up under such a chestload of hardware -- and pretty ribbons in a variety of decorator colors -- can't be expected to speak like ordinary mortals, for example, you and me.
Dick Cavett, Talk Show

Dick Cavett's columns for the New York Times, which ran from February 2007 to December 2009, are collected in his deceptively titled 2010 book Talk Show. The above line comes from his April 11, 2008, column in which he ridicules the speech of Gen. David H. Petraus. I have no problem with ridiculing Petraus, or anyone else, for what Cavett calls sesquipedalianism , or "using foot-and-a-half-long words. (As if using the word sesquipedalianism were not itself an example of sesquipedalianism.) Those who use long words to impress and overuse euphemisms are fair game, as far as I am concerned. But Cavett goes too far in his commentary on the general's array of medals. His first comment is witty, his second, quoted above, is OK, but then, having just warmed up, he writes a second column on the subject, published April 25.

"I guess what bothers me about it is the ostentation," Cavett writes. "General Petraeus is greatly accomplished. So is a brilliant actor, but the actor doesn't walk around with an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony, and a cluster or rave reviews affixed to his tunic." No, he doesn't, but I'll bet many actors would if they could. But they really don't have to. For the rest of their lives they will be introduced or mentioned in ads and articles as "Academy Award winner" or "Tony Award winner" or whatever.

Doctors and and lawyers hang their impressive-looking degrees on the walls of their offices, where patients and clients can be sure to see them. Athletes have trophy cases. Some people, lacking medals, trophies or degrees, just have to brag about what they have accomplished. Cavett himself falls into this category. In his Times columns, and thus in this book, he writes about his many successes in life, from his skills as a young gymnast to defeating a lie detector test administered to him on his talk show by attorney F. Lee Bailey. He also drops a good many names of prominent people he has known.

Is there anything wrong with any of this? Not much that I can see, and that goes for Gen. Petraeus, too. Military officers, when in dress uniform, display their medals. Successful athletes win trophies. If Cavett didn't write about his accomplishments, why would we want to read his book?

At times some people do go overboard in self-promotion, of course, and we usually know it when it happens, just as we know when Cavett goes overboard complaining about Petraeus and his medals.

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