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When I was a teen-ager and in my early twenties I was an avid partisan. In the pre-internet and pre-Talk radio era, I devoured newspapers, TIME, US News, Newsweek and the slick political magazines ( National Review, TNR). I followed all the nuances of issues like Contra aid or the 1986 tax reform. While I was thoroughly Reaganite in my convictions and found liberal hacks like Senator Pat Leahy to be odious fools, I could also look across the aisle to find figures of decency, civility and conviction like Senator Paul Simon and see people whom I could respect.

And now ?

I find it incredibly disillusioning that in what passes for political “debate” these days that a majority of the Republican presidential candidates, Senator McCain excepted, are endorsing torture (!) while most of their Democratic counterparts are enthusiasists for surrender. Except for Senator Edwards who, while being strongly in favor of retreat has one-upped the rest and declared that the war on terror does not even exist ( he’s a fantasist).

This is not the country I grew up in. The nation deserves better.

This is one reason why I very seldom venture into discussing political news here. I find it difficult to believe that much of what scripted sound bites are being uttered represent core beliefs of the candidate rather than artificial nonsense lines designed to pander to splinter special interests divined through exhaustive focus grouping. My fear is that the American political class have reached the point of degeneration that these noxious superficialities do indeed reflect what some of the candidates think.

First rate minds have always been rare in politics, historically speaking, but America has always mustered enough for the tasks at hand. Our revolution benefitted from an unusual abundance of great men precisely because the British imperial system of the Hanoverian monarchs so completely shut out American talent from their system. The early Republic saw giants like John Marshall, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun, to say nothing of Abraham Lincoln who strides across American history like a titan.

The twentieth century boasted no shortage of sage statesmen either, starting with Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to FDR and his successors who were ” present at the creation” to the peaceful closing of the Cold War with Ronald Reagan and the father of the current president. America was rich in leadership. We had severe trials but seldom were we to be found wanting because our leaders, at least some of them, were authentic. You could disagree with Ronald Reagan or Hubert Humphrey but you were disagreeing with a person who thoroughly represented important and substantive values. Values worth debating.

While I have no empirical basis for this to stand upon I suspect that the last few decades have seen fewer and fewer individuals of this caliber enter politics. The nastiness of the political process, the invasiveness, obtuse stupidity and lack of respect by the media coupled by the greater rewards of private life have kept them away. It reminds me of the climate, if not the form, of the later 19th century which was dominated by corrupt machines and party bosses like Mark Hanna, William Marcy Tweed and George Washington Plunkitt. As a result, we get people running for office or currying favor for appointment who see their opportunities and take them.

The good news is that the raw talent and creativity is out there. There are 21st century equivalents to George Marshall or Henry Kissinger or John F. Kennedy. She may be an Asian-American CFO at a software company or a midwestern entrepreneur in Kansas City or a 21 year old infantryman, a child of immigrants, on patrol right now in Iraq. You may know someone who would make a great city councilman or school board member, state legislator or simply a voice for the community, if only someone will encourage them to speak.

26 Responses to “”

  1. Steve Says:

    It’s not all bad. Politics is siphoning off the parasites so the private life/sector isn’t burdened by their presence.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    In a networked culture those that can network better than others are those that rise to the top. The elite networkers are sycophants, not great men. Think al-Zarqawi or Bush.

    Like John Boyd said, it’s the difference between those who ‘do’ and those who ‘be’.

    Those who ‘be’ run our society and until we change the way we hire people, by hiring based on their personal performance and talent and not jobs-for-boys, those be’ers will continue to rise.

  3. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:


    Sounds like it’s time for decentralization. In fact, your description of where the best and brightest are going seems almost a prophecy.

    Your post made me think this, a sort of brainstorm:

    That though there’s much partisan bickering and probably some real hate between competitors (not only ideological, if even that; but also the sort of highschool resentment between those wishing to dominate their particular cliques or networks) — that though a lot of turmoil appears on the surface, in fact the political process has become ossified. This ossification presents hurdles and predetermined routes by which a person must ascend to the top leadership positions; is almost certainly not only the fault of the MSM and ideological partisans, but also of the high-dollar, capitalistic oligarchs who themselves aren’t running for office but make demands (hurtles, routes) for dispensing the $’s necessary to run for office; and said ossification may have a peculiar result: the only movement a particular candidate may make, of his own accord and with some feeling of personal power and efficacy within the ossified system, is the play on abstracts and surface mumbo-jumbo which has lately become their specialty.

    I.e., perhaps the very negative negatives you mention when describing today’s crop of politicians is merely the reaction against the ossification of the political process. Maybe it’s all they have left to do.

    Lincoln, by all accounts, was an extremely shrewd politician and quite ambitions; but because he was Lincoln, he could log-roll while retaining fidelity to the truth that he knew. Most of our current crop are pansies and cowards before the specter of the ossified political process. (Keeping in mind, that the ossification has progress quite a bit since his time, as well…)

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Good one, Mark!

    I’m not sure you’ll be happy to hear this, but Al Gore seems to be saying something similar in his new book.

    Also Gene Robinson in today’s column.

    BTW, I hope to post one or two more in my nuclear series, but it may not be soon.


  5. deichmans Says:


    Do great times make great people, or is it the other way around? I submit that we’re in the midst of a historic inflection point — and that our best leaders will be more evident once this time is well behind us.

    Remember, Lincoln was not even the keynote speaker at the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg (though how many people today remember Edward Everett?).

    Or maybe we’ve fallen prey to the Fifth Gen. Warfare that pervades our mainstream media, and allowed our perceptions of “Quality” be dictated by “they”…. Gads, I hope not….

    sf/ shane

  6. Lexington Green Says:

    Gotta disagree about Woodrow Wilson — not a good guy, not a good statesman. Also, gotta disagree about Mark Hanna — he gets a bad rap.

    Otherwise, I am in general agreement with this post.

  7. Theofanis D Lekkas Says:

    Aren’t great men made by historians? Furthermore, how does one define a great man? Many of the individuals named I would not consider great. In fact I would go as far as to say that people with exceptional talent, discipline, intelligence, etc. stay out of the political process entirely. Let the truly great men reside in the private sector where they make life better, not worse like politicians and bureaucrats do.


  8. Anonymous Says:

    or maybe none of us are really paying attention (too busy in a modern society trying to make a living) and maybe the visual images/sound bites that we are bombarded with really do work; i.e. we do vote for them (although the Romney commercials bring me to the point of throwing something at the tube).


  9. Jayson Says:

    Interesting post. Kind of reminds me of a “Purpleslog” post from a year (or so) ago; by anychance, are you familiar with a 1959 Poul Anderson sci-fi short story, “A Man To My Wounding”?

    And here’s another thing this reminds me of, particularly the discussion of “the remnant” towards the end:

    “You Are Not Alone” (Part 1)

  10. Lexington Green Says:

    “Aren’t great men made by historians?”

    Some men are unmade by historians.

    U.S. Grant was a very effective president, or so I say:


    Yet the historians have dismissed him and missed the point of his presidency.

    Paul Johnson, in Modern Times and in his history of the USA makes a good case that Calvin Coolidge is severely underrated, and I tend to agree with that assessment.

    Nixon’s significance is lost in the word “Watergate”. He was a world historical figure.

    On the other hand, the period between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt is often depicted as one of the total debasement of public life, the Gilded Age of corruption, etc. Of course, the historians who wrote about that period were a bunch of snobs. In fact that was a period of fantastic economic development, and the politicians were usually smart enough to stay out of the way. But, it is also clear that during those decades politics was not “where the action is”, the private economy was, and the best people went into business. We may be in a similar time now. Lord Bryce wrote about this phenomenon at the time, as I discussed here:


  11. PurpleSlog Says:

    Great post Zen.

    One of the crucial problems facing the US is the quality of leadership in National public policy positions.

    Right now, we have no Lincolns or Roosevelts on the national stage.

    Perhaps, we need to make it easier for folks to move between the public and private sector.

    Perhaps we need to have incentives to stay in government positions for long period of time for the effects of public choice theory set in.

    Heck, Lincoln was a fluke…a 4-way election. The US maybe just got lucky.

    When I was in College I was brushing up against the activist and future leaders. I have to say, I would not vote or campaign for any of them.

  12. Adrian Says:

    Lexington – Ulysses S. Grant is probably the one subject that you and Maha (of http://www.mahablog.com) agree upon.


    Personally, I am of the opinion that all “Great Men” were invented by Stephen Ambrose so he could sell books. Few could withstand the scrutiny modern politicians undergo. Can you imagine JFK getting Clinton’s treatment for adultery?

  13. mark Says:

    Holy cow! What a robust comment thread!

    Reverse order:


    Dave Schuler made a similar obervation today via email. We know too much -” No man is a hero to his valet”



    You are right – we make it very hard ( and redundantly so) to enter public service. The background checks alone are discouraging (really, who wants DIA and FBI agents investigating if you smoked a joint thirty years ago on the quad?)


    Agree with you on Coolidge,; think Grant is more a great man than a great president (kind of like John Adams). Wilson was historically great ( significant impact) even if his policies did not all have ” great” ( i.e. good) outcomes


    The only 1950’s Paul Anderson I’m familiar with was an olympic weightlifter. Did not catch the particular Purpleslog post either – hey Purp, do you have a link to the post Jaysen is referring to ?


    I think it is an intersection of times and man. T.R. would have loved to have been president during WWI but peace and prosperity is no catalyst for glory.


    Thank you ! And thanks for the nod on the ” thinking blogger” award too!

    Gore at least has it right that we are paying too much for subpar internet access – I’ll give him that.


    The oligarchs would not have that kind of power were it not for the illogical stupidities of campaign finance ” reform”. We had better and more interesting candidates when all a guy running for president needed to assemble was four of five ” kitchen cabinet” multimilionaire backers. Litmus tests could not be imposed because each major candidate had the freedom to tell the special interests and the ideological kooks to F- off.


    I fear you are correct.


    There are still too many of them in private life – a problem with parasites, they need a host to graft on to.

  14. Maarja Krusten Says:


    Leadership doesn’t exist in a vacuum, of course. There are those who lead and those who are led. Take a look at


    — some interesting observations from several participants at a conference at Villanova a few years ago on leadership and governance.


  15. Fabius Maximus Says:

    You are asking the wrong question.

    We elect them, so the source of the problem must be in ourselves — not in the lack of political stars.

    Just a guess (nothing more): small people do not elect big people.

  16. purpleslog Says:

    The link should be this I think:


    I can’t actually access my blog from work.

    The short story included a cold war between the US and China that was actually a hot war that the US did not realize was hot. China was targeting for assassination those they figured would be excellent future US leaders. There were culling the future leadership pool.

  17. Lexington Green Says:

    Another thing. No one looks like a great statesman at the time.

    Decades have to go by before you can get perspective.

    Look at contemporary views of Hamilton, Lincoln, TR, FDR, Churchill.

    Everybody always says, “they were giants, we were dwarves”. You cannot see the giants in your midst. While they are alive they look like men — or women. Give it 50 years, at least.

  18. dinosaur con Says:

    that is the most demented list of “giants” I’ve ever seen. Abe Lincoln is responsible fopr the deaths of 600,000 americans. Wilson and FDR far more. These are giant VILLAINS. Jefferson, Taft and Goldwater knew that this version of history, these “great” men, was a lie.

    Why stop at men who simply cut off habeaus corpus and fought wars of chioce to feed the state? How abuot Mussolini or Lenin?

    Why go halfway?

    If you had been ordered to drop bombs on the heads of german civilians, like my grandfather was or ordered to saigon in the prime of your life like my father was, you’d realize politicians are bloodsucking shits and the REAL giants are Bill Gates, Cindy Cheehan, John Lennon, and other non beltway visionairies.

  19. mark Says:

    Hi Dinosaur,

    I have to say that I find your arguments lacking in logic. For example, you wrote:

    “Abe Lincoln is responsible fopr the deaths of 600,000”

    One would think that the secessionists who started the Civil War might have accrued some of the blame. Edmund Ruffin was eager to fire upon Fort Sumter, Fort Sumter, despite Ruffin’s deranged rhetoric, did not fire upon Ruffin.

    “Wilson and FDR far more. These are giant VILLAINS.”

    Hitler declared war on the United States, BTW, not the reverse.

    FDR did many things that were not to my taste politically and economically but crying me a river for WWII bombing raids on Nazi Germany cuts no ice here. That regime was an abombination that brought deserved destruction upon itself and its followers.

    Recall Guernica, Warsaw, Rotterdam and London – Hitler did not rule in spite of the feelings of his fellow Germans but with a rather large degree of their support, even to the bitter end. The German people got off far more lightly in losing the war than *any* of their neighbors would have if Nazi Germany had won.

    Vietnam, you have greater cause for complaint there but anyone lamenting Germany’s defeat, or the Confederacy’s has an agenda that has very little to do with individual freedom.

  20. Theofanis D Lekkas Says:

    Although I do not lament the Confederacy’s loss, I do not hold Lincoln in high esteem (I understand that this is apostasy for those born and raised in Illinois, but there you have it.) I think it is perfectly logical and coherent to say that the southern states had every right to secede, while at the same time recognizing how the institution of slavery undermined the southern cause (and the cause of individual freedom.) I would like to say that I do not understand why people are so emotional when it comes to the issue of the civil war, but I understand that most people find easier to believe in something and take great offense when somebody criticizes that belief (not intended as an insult to the regular commentators of this blog.) I still think it is important to ask the question, “Do we need great men?”


    P.S. Is the civil war basically a proxy for views on race in contemporary discourse?

  21. Theofanis D Lekkas Says:

    One more thing. Bill Gates, I can accept as a “giant”, but Cindy Sheehan??? I could not disagree more, she is just another horrible footnote to a footnote of history.


  22. lester Says:

    So if I don’t agree with you about world war two or the civil war I’m against individual freedom. yeah, there’s this stuff called “conservatism” you might want to check out sometime. in between your strauss and weekly standard studies. kid

  23. mark Says:

    Hi TDL,

    A saint, Lincoln ain’t. Historical greatness is not about goodness ( though in my Illinoisan partiality, Lincoln is pretty darn good)but about magnitude of effect. Lincoln has harsh critics who can dredge up many accurate foibles and errors.

    What they an’t get around is that the Civil War was started by the other side but finished by Lincoln on Northern terms.

    Yes, I think for some people, the Civil War is a proxy debate over race; not for the majority however.

    Hi Lester,

    “Kid” ?

    Clarification: Are you merely siding with Dino con or is “Dino con” an alias of yours ?

    To address the substance of your comment:

    Some paleocons and Libertarians make a WWII pro-isolationist or pro-Confederacy historical arguments, notably the pundits Joseph Sobran and Pat Buchanan.

    I think both conflict with an interest in individual liberty or conservatism. While you can make an abstract legal argument for secession ( a debatable one)at a minimum, I’d be hard pressed to see Edmund Burke viewing the Third Reich with anything but grave alarm.

    The Nazis weren’t extreme German conservatives but radicals, revolutionary racial nationalists to be specific. Interestingly enough, the genuinely conservative historian John Lukacs reports that Hitler viewed the Isolationist Right in America as “radical nationalists” and not as ” conservatives” ( the latter group Hitler correctly regarded as ” reactionary” enemies of National Socialism).

  24. lester Says:

    “Some paleocons and Libertarians make a WWII pro-isolationist or pro-Confederacy historical arguments, notably the pundits Joseph Sobran and Pat Buchanan”

    there are your great men!

    as for civil war being a “proxy” discussion for race. that’s ridiculous. There are tons of blacks who hate Lincoln. He wanted to send all the freed slaves back to Africa. Marx was a big lincoln fan. it was abuot economics, not slavery. and the south had every right to sucede.

  25. Eddie Says:

    Contrasting the empty suits and ideologues that we have in D.C. with the often gifted leadership we find within states, counties and cities, one of the key problems is what CGW talked about; mainly the national structure and the amount of dollars and time required to leap to that national stage.

    I’ve noticed for the past decade that local leadership is blessed with some gifted individuals, some who make a noticeable difference, others who are defeated by special interests like teacher’s unions and business lobbies and an increasing number who seem to thrive, not only personally, but for their constituents.

    Maybe it has always been lke this but its at least a possible bit of hope in a dark time for national leadership (can’t believe how ignorant Brownback has acted, how vapid Romney has been and how timid Obama has seemed).

  26. mark Says:

    Slavery is about economics, or more properly speaking, political economy. Having reached its peak profitability in the global cotton market in the 1850’s, it was a potential disaster on that score as well on the vital moral question that animated abolitionism. The South could not have outcompeted British India or Egypt in the 1870’s or 1880’s even with slave labor ( just as they could not with sharecropping).

    Hi eddie,

    They are all a sorry bunch though, in my view, Edwards is currently standing out as the most irresponsible lightweight among the major Democratic candidates.

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