Friday, August 9, 2013

Reagan, Thatcher, Gorbachev, Machiavelli... Where are they now?

Poor Nicolo Machiavelli!  He really gets a bad rap, doesn’t he?  I mean, just because the well-worn phrase “the end justifies the means” can be traced to his masterwork, The Prince, that doesn’t mean he was a bad guy, does it?  But, that’s the way he’s perceived.  Even people who don’t know what he has written or who he is know that a “Machiavellian scheme” is a bad thing.

More high-minded people point to how he turned the concept of a virtuous society on its head.  The ancient Greek philosophers – Aristotle and Socrates – defined a virtuous society as the result of the good works of its citizens.  To their way of thinking, the means were more important than the end.  Old Nick turned that concept of virtue on its head.  To him, virtue was about being crafty, astute or sly.  It referred to the ability of a leader to deal with whatever comes their way – to be decisive and get results.

The Prince was a handbook for the heirs to the Medici fortune not a blueprint for utopia.   The Greeks were idealists.  Machiavelli was a pragmatist.

Most often this blog turns on “issues” and policies.  I am an issues-oriented guy and those who take the time to read this fit the same mold.  We decry the misguided media and wonder aloud why the mass of voters doesn’t seem to care about the issues.  We parse the words of political candidates as if they will actually do (or have a chance to do) what they promise in campaigns.  Naïve idealists that we are, we actually think that policy matters more than politics and that what politicians say, they should do.

Alas, most political leaders have no opportunity to pursue the policies on which they campaign.  Some have no illusions.  They campaign to get elected.  Others may be sincere but their best intentions are overcome by events.  The administrations of LBJ and the much-maligned Jimmy Carter were not defined by their political campaigns.  They were defined by what the world handed them, the Vietnam War and the Iranian hostage crisis, respectively.

What was handed Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was Mikhail Gorbachev.  What was interesting is that Gorby brought them an opportunity to pursue ideas in which they believed (unlike the duo mentioned above).

More than any world leader in the 80’s, Gorbachev determined how the 20th Century would draw to a close.  His policies of “perestroika” (restructuring)and “glasnost” (openness) led to freely contested elections and liberalization of the economy.  He foresaw the economic collapse of the Soviet model and hastened it.  The Soviet Union may not have gone so quietly had it not been for Gorbachev, a pragmatist who saw that he didn’t have the resources to continue the Cold War.  Would we think of Reagan and Thatcher in the same way had the Soviet Union dragged on for another decade or two?  How about Helmut Kohl?  Could he have unified Germany and worked with Mitterrand toward the development of the European Union?

In 2000, George Bush campaigned against Clinton’s policies in the former Yugoslavia, calling it nation building, a policy that often results in failure.  But, 9/11 changed everything.  Bush soon found himself nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His successor, Barack Obama, campaigned against Bush’s policies in those two far away lands.  Once inaugurated, he was off to the Middle East to address the Arab public so as to differentiate himself from his predecessor. But, the financial crisis and his response to it define his first term more than any ideology he espoused. 

It was not the policies on which Bush and Obama campaigned that mattered.  It was their character and their ability to make a decision in moments of crisis and stick with them. 

It’s great to focus on policy as a framework for the direction of the country (any country).  However, it’s naïve to think that the political and international landscape is so benign as to permit a candidate to actually follow their prescription for governance.  It is usually a crisis and a leader’s response to it that defines their tenure.  And, it’s their ability to embrace the Machiavellian concept of virtue that determines their success. 

Policy wonks may decry the way in which the media – and most voters – focus on personality or, to put in high-mindedly, character of the candidates.  But, at the end of the day, character is more important than policies. 



  1. To my dismay, Hillary Clinton did not get the last presidential election in the USA. She sleeps with the best former President in several decades. Her bedmate every night, actually, and really did, balance the budget that previous presidents couldn’t handle.
    Sadly, There is an aversion to the thought of a female president in the USA. The American voting public seems to ignore the success of Female leaders and Heads of State in other countries.
    England, India and Israel are the first three to jump into my mind.
    Wake up America! We have what is needed to get this country back up to the forefront of World leadership. Let’s put her in office where she can actually LEAD the USA!

  2. Phillip Parker • Interesting post, John. One naturally thinks about Bill Clinton. Remarkably gifted politician with tragic character flaws.

  3. Raul Mas Sorry John but I didn't like how this one ended. You left me wanting more, especially your thoughts on the character(s) of our current leader(s). I eagerly await Part Two.

  4. If you are looking for a critique, you'll find it in some of my other posts. To remain clear about the point of this post, I prefer not to comment on the positions of Bush, Obama et al. The question isn't what they believe; it's how they respond to the unforeseen challenges.

  5. simone velasquez hoover This could be a whole semester of teaching! Like Raul, I would like to see part II just to hear you develop the thoughts further.. Can't tell you the number of times I have shared that thought..where are today's al?

  6. Sorry,friends. I won't take the bait. My whole focus for this blog is to rise above the pettiness of day-to-day politic punditry. The focus of this particular post is important to me. I have heard people attribute good leadership to those with whom they agree and vice-versa. A great leader communicates objectives clearly, provides a rationale, works to gain support for the initiative and follows through. One could pick any policy initiative of any president and pick it apart to find something negative and thereby cast dispersions on the character of that president. That's a job for pundits. I hate the process and no longer watch cable news.

  7. Chuck Rosselle • What links Machiavelli to leadership and more high minded concepts is the notion that worthy goals often necessitate less than worthy ends. An effective leader knows how to reach down into the muck without getting dragged into it himself. Lincoln, for example understood this completely. I expect many you mention also knew it.

  8. Chuck Rosselle • What links Machiavelli to leadership and more high minded concepts is the notion that worthy goals often necessitate less than worthy ends. An effective leader knows how to reach down into the muck without getting dragged into it himself. Lincoln, for example understood this completely. I expect many you mention also knew it.

  9. Phillip Parker • No, Gorby is still kicking at age 82.

    The other thought I had on this issue is that good character is not enough by itself to make a good President. There are a number of men of fine character who held the office that were not very good Presidents. I put both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush in that category.

  10. Michael Carron • I wonder where Marshal Josip Broz Tito would fit in this discussion. He was seen a unifying force and maintained the peaceful coexistence of the nations of the Yugoslav federation. He was also a dictator (although considered the "benevolent" sort). Things went to hell after his death. I wonder if it takes 50 or 100 years before historians can really know whether a leader meets the Machiavellian Standard or is that something that has to be judged in real time and what follows is the next leader(s) problem.

  11. Character is what enables a leader to convert the idealistic goals of policy into action rather than paint political expediency with the vernacular of policy. Machiavelli is often bastardized through today's pundit-driven politics.

  12. Zachary J. Sochacki
    Principal, Sochacki & Associates

    I've always thought that Niccolo got the short end of the stick in our modern revisionist history.

    My own bent is toward pragmatism.

    Idealism is necessary to remind us of our humanity.

    However, Idealists enjoy the expression of their ideals at the pleasure of the Pragmatists who have made it possible for those favorable conditions to exist through sacrifice, hard work and...yes...guile, which allow that expression.

    It's all in the sausage making, isn't it?