Where are the statesmen?, we often hear asked. Questions such as this usually arise in troubled times. And most of us would agree these times qualify as troubled.
One theory is that statesmen [and here the word is used to include both genders] appear only in times of crisis–world wars and great depressions. The theory is worth exploring if for no other reason than for what it might reveal about us as a nation. In other words, do leaders have to exhibit extraordinary powers to become statesmen, and is our system designed to grant individuals extraordinary powers only in times of desperate needs?
There is certainly Constitutional support for this theory, with our checks and balances system purposely designed to prevent concentration of power in a single individual. But one can be a statesman without being president. There have been some very large figures in both the Senate and the House throughout our history. Some military leaders have been considered statesmen. George Marshall, for example. Occasionally, diplomats, say George Kennan, have assumed the role of statesman.
For purposes of this discussion, let’s consider the usual characteristics of statesmanship: a sense of history; distinguished achievements; ability to see farther ahead; perception and insight; a keen understanding of human nature; quiet self-assurance; unselfishness; large character; and, perhaps most of all, a sense of the national interest that rises above partisan politics.
Does anyone on the current scene come to mind? Among current leaders, of course, it is too soon to say. Because history alone can judge one’s achievements. But current circumstances discourage statesmanship. Those circumstances would include especially the intense, constant, and insistent attention of the media, focused much more on flaws and shortcomings than on accomplishment. Few citizens of stature care to put themselves through what is casually called “scrutiny”.
It should not require a crisis to create a statesman. Figures exhibiting the qualities I’ve suggested, and other you may suggest, can arise. It is worth wondering why they have not and why they do not. Perhaps in the answer to this question may lie some revealing shortcomings not only in our leaders but also in ourselves.