Ain’t it so: one thing leads to another. I’m about done with my Churchill year. However, I got interested in Public School curriculum in England at that time because Colville mentioned Plutarch. So I bought a copy of Plutarch’s Lives on Amazon (A nice used leather-bound one). If you think of Kennedy’s Profiles In Courage…Plutarch is the original you might say. He profiles leaders, 48 of them, each an opposite of the other. So I’m going to spend several of these weekly letters to you with some old Greek stories that talk to us right now. The first is Themistocles. Here’s a quick description that you might find if this were your first class at Eton or Harrow:
Themistocles was an important Greek democratic leader and statesman. He urged Athenians to build a strong navy, and led that navy at the Battle of Salamis in the year 480. As a democratic leader, he was opposed by those favoring the interests of the wealthier classes at Athens. Notable among his opponents was Aristides, nicknamed the "Just." Under Themistocles, the fortification of Athens and its port, and the creation of a mighty navy, put Athens in a position to build a maritime empire, which it eventually did.
Now, let me bring you forward. It’s the year 2009. David Brooks, in a piece for the New York Times, writes:
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.
I always put an emphasis on communication technique. But today I’m reminding you of the 5 pillars of credibility. “Pure and Good” is the 3rd…Character. Wily and effective is the 1st…Competence. I want you to described as great leaders because you possess both. And I also encourage you to find your own worn copy of Plutarch’s Lives. Next week: Pericles.