Wisdom of the Ages
I was thinking about leaders today, and about how we decide which guys would make good elected officials. When you set aside platform, I think we all pretty much agree on what kinds of characteristics make for ideal leaders. In fact, it seems like the characters we value in our leaders today are probably the same ones that have been highly regarded throughout the ages. So, to test my theory I decided to go back. Way back. I pulled up the quotes of ancient sages King Solomon (tenth century, BCE) and Confucius (fifth century, BCE) to see if either one had any wisdom on the virtues required of leaders. This is what I found:
"For a lack of guidance a nation fails, but victory is won through many advisers." -- Solomon
One of the complaints many have had about the Bush administration is that he and Cheney have been sort of Lone Ranger executives. Sure they have advisers, and sometimes they even let the advisers advise, but rumor has it that the two of them listen politely before going ahead with whatever their plan was to begin with, regardless of any concerns raised. Colin Powell says he cautioned President Bush about the long-term implications and complications involved in invading Iraq. He says he did everything in his power to dissuade Bush from invading, but Bush insisted. Now, six years later, I think most of us wish Bush had heeded wise counsel. And indeed many of us now value a leader's willingness to accept counsel so much that we've watched both McCain and Obama closely to try to get a sense of how they interact with their campaign advisers.
"A ruler with discernment and knowledge maintains order." -- Solomon
Clearly we still value both discernment and knowledge. A majority of voters polled now say that Palin makes them less likely to trust McCain with the presidency. Why? Because they say that Palin lacks the requisite knowledge for the vice presidency, and the fact that she does makes them question McCain's discernment.
"If the people have no faith in their rulers, there is no standing for the state." -- Confucius
Trust is quite an issue in this election. After all, many Republicans trusted Bush to uphold Republican notions of limited government, only to have him extend executive privilege to its greatest extent ever. Many Democrats feel that Bush betrayed our trust by overstating Iraq's nuclear capabilities to justify his war. I remember during the primary how often I heard voters say they couldn't support Romney. Why? Well, they weren't sure exactly why, but they just didn't trust him. Now I hear many Obama supporters say the same of McCain, and many many McCain supporters say the same of Obama.
"If a prince's personal conduct is not correct, he may issue orders, but they will not be followed." -- Confucius
Boy are we ever obsessed with politicians and their personal lives. We've had a few too many politicians cheat on their wives, or fool around with underaged interns, or get caught with their pants down in a public restroom. Perhaps we shouldn't care, but we do. And Confucius's comment indicates that people always have.
Why don't we trust our leaders who make personal mistakes? Because we feel that those mistakes reflect on their integrity. And if an official has no personal integrity, why would we think he'd have any integrity in office? This is why we see the obsession with the personal lives of McCain and Obama. Did you hear about McCain's first wife? What about Obama's friends? Has McCain had an affair? Which church does Obama attend, anyway? We talk about these things in part just because we like to gossip; but also because, just as Confucius's contemporaries did, we simply expect our leaders to have their private lives in order.
"The art of governing is to ... practice government affairs with undeviating consistency." -- Confucius
Constancy: the rarest of political virtues. We want leaders who are consistent, who live by the same personal and political principles day after day and year after year. And when it comes to elections, everybody wants to know what a candidate will do, so we look at his track record to try to make projections. Unfortunately, anymore it seems the records are too inconsistent to indicate much. And so we begrudgingly crown nearly every candidate for office a flip-flopper and have to choose the least of the evils. But if there's one thing you can say for Obama, it's that he's predictable. He may be a liberal, but by golly he's consistent. You know exactly what he stands for. And that's important.So, as you can see I only found a handful of ancient quotes on government. But I thought it was interesting that every one of them was still applicable and reasonably accurate today. It kind of makes you wonder if three thousand years from now, people will still be discussing the character of their leadership, and still seeking the same virtues therein.