Saturday, March 24, 2007

DAVID BROOKS: For 2008: An American Themistocles

Leonidas led the Spartans at Thermopylae, and as anybody who’s seen “300” can tell you, he had all the qualities of a perfect movie hero. He was brave, straightforward and self-sacrificing.

But it’s worth pointing out that Leonidas didn’t win the Persian Wars. Themistocles did, and Themistocles had an altogether different set of qualities. He was not straightforward; in fact, he could be deceptive and manipulative. He was not self-sacrificing; there was an air of corruption and fierce ambition about him. He was not charming or cultured; historians from Herodotus on down have had trouble warming to him.

But he was cunning and effective. After the defeat at Thermopylae he manipulated the demoralized Greek city-states into making a stand against the Persians at Salamis. He understood Persian impatience, and maneuvered the empire into a battle on waters most favorable to the heavier and slower Greek warships. He apparently lied to the Persian king, Xerxes, by promising to commit treason, and so tricked the Persians into a hasty attack.

The Athenians valued Themistocles, but they never really loved him. He was pushed from power mere months after his epic victory. As Plutarch later reported, the Athenians “treated him like a plane-tree; when it was stormy, they ran under his branches for shelter, but as soon as it was fine, they plucked his leaves and lopped his branches.”

When we Americans pick a leader, we usually look for the Leonidas type: direct, faithful and upright. We usually pick someone we hope is uplifting. Especially since Watergate, Americans have sought presidents uncorrupted by capital intrigue.

From Carter to Reagan to Clinton to Bush, we’ve favored Washington outsiders, people who seemed to offer freshness or authenticity, whose claim to leadership flowed from some inner light, rather than rugged expertise in the tough and nasty business of national politics.

But I wonder if this will be the election in which voters seek out a Themistocles, an election in which they put aside dreams of finding somebody pure and good, and select somebody they think will be wily and effective.

For over the past few years, America’s enemies have been more cunning than we have. Whether it was Mohamed Atta with the box cutters, bin Laden escaping at Tora Bora, the Baathists with their insurgency, Zarqawi inciting an Iraqi civil war, or Ahmadinejad maneuvering his way toward a nuclear bomb, America’s enemies seem to have been rendered clever by their relative weakness while we’ve been rendered stupid by our might.

And the tasks ahead require cleverness more than Gary Cooper simplicity and virtue. The next leader will have to build a coalition of autocrats against the extremists, not grow apoplectically rigid in the face of their barbarism. The next leader will have to manipulate the self-interest of other countries and factions, not bully them with ultimatums. The next leader will have to have an intimate knowledge of the apparatus of government and the limits and capacities of what it can do.

In other words, what the country seems to need is somebody who understands power, and the subtlety of its use, and who has had direct experience with friends and foes, foreign and domestic.

And this person must have all these world-weary qualities with a thick stripe of American idealism too. Or as Reinhold Niebuhr put it a few decades ago: “The preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice. They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification. They must have this wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of the community.”

This is a unique set of qualities — more Themistocles than Leonidas, more Bismarck and Sharon than Gandhi, Havel and Mandela. People who have this mixture of idealism and wiliness are usually experienced and tainted by scandal.

But I suspect the voters will go to the polling places with a colder eye this time. In any case, before we get too lost in the tactics and personalities of the campaign, it might be a good idea to actually figure out what kind of leader we are seeking to hire, what qualities the times require. Is it those of Themistocles or those of Leonidas, or someone else?

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