Sunday, January 23, 2011


"A politician is a man who understands government. A statesman is a politician who has been dead 15 years." So quipped Harry S Truman. A mere politician to one generation can become a statesman to subsequent generations as partisan strife fades, new knowledge comes to light, and the public becomes more forgiving with the passage of time. Did not Truman himself morph into a statesman in U.S. public opinion? He left office in 1953 with approval tanking in the low 20s. One David McCullough biography and four decades later, he became a "near great president."

Statesmen are political leaders who are exceptionally ethical and effective. Classicist Rufus Fears cites four characteristics that great political leaders possess: (1) in their personal relations, a moral compass to maintain integrity when dealing with others, (2) in their public affairs, a bedrock of principles combined with the ability to compromise on negotiables, (3) emotional intelligence, good interpersonal relations, and communication skills to bring people together in a consensus, and (4) vision or foresight -- pronoia in Thucydides – which anticipates danger, guides priorities in setting the agenda, makes one a "problem seeker" rather than just a "problem solver," and answers the question: What should stay the same, and what should change, as a people respond to a challenge, seek to better their condition, or take themselves to the Promised Land?

To these characteristics, an Aristotelian like Alasdair MacIntyre would add (5) the virtue of prudence, which is good judgment wedded to right action. Presidential historian Robert Dallek would add (6) luck since statesmen enjoy enough good luck to win the battles they must. Agreeing with all that has come before, I would add (7) the inner strength, psychological resilience, and courage to fight another day. For elaboration on this last point, please see my essay, "Democracy's Greatest Leaders -- Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill."

Who Are the Greatest Democratic Statesmen of All Time?

Historically, democracy has proven to be a tough laboratory of leadership. In our American two-party system, ideologues usually fare poorly; compromise is necessary to self preservation (and to live to see another election cycle). Each side in a debate wins some and loses some as it muddles along. Reinhold Niebuhr quipped that democracy is the search for non-existent solutions to unsolvable problems. Winston Churchill confessed that it's "the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

Democracy requires a different kind of leader – I think a better one. Rather than rising to the top by conquest or dynastic succession, the democratic leader comes into authority
- through a constitutional process,
- with the consent of the governed,
- by demonstrating good judgment and right actions frequently enough to win the confidence of fellow citizens.

Who have been the greatest democratic statesmen of all time? Informal surveys show that five individuals usually make the cut. They are the models, the gold standard if you will, for what historians and the American public believe democratic statesmen should be. Each one of them governed when his nation's survival was at stake. Chronologically, the five are:
1. Pericles of Athens
2. George Washington
3. Abraham Lincoln
4. Winston Churchill
5. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

(Cicero, Konrad Adenauer, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher are among the others that show up on American lists.)

In our kiss-and-tell marketplace when best sellers expose the private person under the public mask, we would never mistake any of these statesmen for flawless marble statues.
- Pericles made such bad strategic blunders that he cost the Athenians victory in the Peloponnesian War.
- George Washington was hardly prudent in his first military campaign, which in the opinion of many precipitated the Seven Years War. During that campaign he recklessly endangered his men. Moreover, he won only three of the nine battles he fought in the War for Independence.
- From the 1860s to this day, Abraham Lincoln has been regarded by many as a tyrant because of the way he interpreted the Constitution and conducted the Civil War; he profited from the sale of slaves; he represented a slave owner in a case against a slave; and by today’s standards, he was a confirmed racist.
- Winston Churchill ran either hot or cold with the public. The "man of the century" was alternately hated by labor, suffragettes, the Irish, the French, and Brits who lost loved ones at the Dardanelles. And because he was one of the architects of the Palestine Mandate, he's regarded as the source of many of the problems in the Middle East to this day. Recently the bust of him in the White House was sent away because the British imprisoned and tortured President Obama's grandfather during Kenya's Mau Mau rebellion for independence.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his issues, too. He wasn’t above demonizing Republicans, stacking the Supreme Court, keeping a mistress, and aggrandizing the national government at the expense of the Constitution.

Bulletin: our leaders are human.

Despite their flaws, these five are regarded as the best there are. Do you agree? Remember that each one of the five was a wartime leader. Is it possible to be ranked among the greatest of the great if your nation is not in crisis, if your nation enjoys a run of peace and prosperity? Whom do you think is a great democratic statesman, and why?

For more, visit the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at

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