The Missing Statesmen

Author: Gary Hart

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.


12 Responses to “The Missing Statesmen”

  1. Joseph Glazer Says:

    Why is it then, that it appears we live in a time of the “Anti-Statesmen?” Is it the 24/7 news cycle? Leaders of the Right and Far-Right believe they can further their careers through personal attack, both verbal and physical.

    Do they do so on principle, and if so, which one?

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  3. Forest Henry Book Says:

    There are so many reasons why there appears to be an absence of the Statesman. But one stands out more than the others: Sports. Some how, politics, matters of governance has become a “sport” event; a winner, and a loser. The reporting even approaches political coverage from that stand point of sporting commentary. The score, and averages are found in polls, and fund raising figures. The seats won, or lost. The graphics take on a team sport brand appearance. This places any debate in a position of some one being “right” or flatly wrong. These debates are more appear to be more about adherence to dogma, than what is the best method of governance, social engagement or the health of each of the dynamics that constitute culture. The debate is reduced to simple phrases. Simple ideas. While the complexity of governance is concealed by “keep it simple, stupid” rhetoric. The differences between editorial and narrative; objective and subject discourse, and commentary serve to obscure the depth of thinking required for statesman or “Person of State” discourse. Let’s face it – look at your Jefferson quote on this page. Wisdom is the rock. Our principle, our rock; is the wisdom of agility, such agility is American; if not wise. Now factor in “corporate law” and you have what?

  4. Neal Taslitz, Esq. Says:

    There are still a few older and wiser Statesmen around, but most of them died, left government service or were not asked to join President Obama’s Administration.

    For the past 20 years lobbyists and personal “attack politics” have turned much of Washington into a cesspool, where profanity and personal attacks invading the privacy of many government leaders have caused former and potential Statesmen to seek positions outside the government.

    Colin Powell is considered by most Democrats and moderate Republicans to be someone who has the qualities of a great Statesman. There are others as well, who are older than most if not all staffers in the White House.

    President Obama would be wise to consider asking a few of them to join his administration sooner rather than later, if only for a year or two, in order to mentor those younger staffers in his administration, who seem to have lost sight of how important the Statesman can be to heal the wounds that have been inflicted during the past 14 months, and also to help President Obama move forward on the world stage with those types of issues that a Statesman can provide valuable assistance.

    With the help of a few good Statesmen, perhaps the president and his staffers could learn how to accomplish more with less delay and reduce the bickering over the next few years, before those “older” Statesmen leave the stage.

  5. Steve Says:

    I feel that many of the reasons are not very hidden, at all. Hart mentions the media, no doubt a large contributor to this phenomenon, but, undeniably, the role money plays in politics is the largest obstacle to our nation’s ability to produce statesmen. I also wholeheartedly agree that the citizenry of this country at large are to blame, as well. Politicians would be less shortsighted if they weren’t so generously rewarded for being so, and more farsighted if they weren’t so often punished for it. Let’s take a look at Bush 41 and Bush 43. 41 was able to see that deficits were a serious problem, so he did the responsible thing and rose taxes. In contrast, 43 began two wars and massively expanded entitlement spending with Medicare Part D, while taking no measures to pay for either, and instead cutting taxes. 41 was punished for his responsibility while 43 was rewarded for his brazen disregard for the consequences of his actions beyond his tenure.

    The fact is that a democracy is only as good as it’s citizens, and with statistics like the following, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the future of our country.

    -64% of Americans don’t think humans are responsible for climate change.
    -60% believe the story of Noah’s arc actually happened.
    -Only 39% believe in evolution.

    Today’s Americans are just too stupid to know what’s good for them, or create an environment that encourages statesmanship, let alone one that abstains from discouraging it.

  6. Michael Califra Says:

    Jimmy Carter’s presidency had its problems but he appointed Paul Volcker to wring inflation out of the economy, arguably at the expense of his own presidency; brokered the only lasting peace between major antagonists in the Middle East; negotiated away the Panama Canal, which probably saved the US from fighting a protracted and unwinnable guerrilla war there. He also started a process for energy independence and cancelled a major and utterly useless weapon system — the B1 bomber. For 30 years since leaving office he has dedicated himself to international conflict resolution and worthy causes here at home. All these things were and are in the long-term national interest and fit your definition of a statesman. Yet look where it got him. He is still disdained by the Right and often ridiculed by the media. More recently, Bill Clinton seems to fit the definition too, but is generally seen in a different light. It seems that not only are an array of accomplishments necessary to achieve the status of statesman, but these days, a certain hip media persona as well.

  7. Jeff Simpson Says:

    Society has, for many years, emphasized what is most important, and what is not. On the winning end: money, greed, conspicuous consumption, materialism (Madison avenue lets us fall in love with the SUV, Hollywood gave us Dallas, Melrose Place, the OC, and of course the real estate boom meant that everybody had to have at least a time share somewhere nice). On the losing end: public service, the literati, scientists. Perhaps our disenchantment with the bomb itself and therefore also with those famous Manhattan Project physicists (Oppenheimer for communist sympathies, and later Teller for being such a right wind nut job) was integral in the decline of society’s support of working for the collective good.

    Martha Stout, in her very interesting book “The Sociopath Next Door” at one point discusses the relative prevalence of sociopathy in the US versus in asian cultures. In the US, the emphasis on bucking trends, on rugged individualism, on cowboy-style initiative, is argued to be, at least in part, responsible for the much higher rate of consciousless individuals detected in the US compared with asian cultures and their heavier emphasis on adherence to maintaining social order and rank.

    The very individualism and giddy upward mobility in which our society is steeped may be the root cause of our lack of selfless leaders. When all encouragement and praise is showered on the aggressive, greedy kids, can we really be surprised that they grow up to be selfish and materialistic individuals?

    Or is it just that the true public servants do not advance in the political arena?

    Genetic variation dictates that fresh combinations of genes will always produce the full range of human traits, characteristics, and attributes, and so there will always be a few selfless individuals whose better angels lay dormant (recessive) in preceding generations. What I worry more about is where the average is moving, how those swing voters that decide elections become increasingly incapable of recognizing the voice of reason as articulated by a true statesman.

  8. Phineas Says:

    Some names mentioned seem to fit the bill–Carter, Clinton, Powell. But none of these is in the Geo. Marshall mold. Also, consider that an individual would have to want this role–and many, for the reasons described, simply do not. Who wants to go through all the media scrutiny? Didn’t you once say, Sen. Hart, that the first thing a nominee would have to do is hire a lawyer and an accountant? Through the years we’ve seen plenty of people who could have stepped into these roles–we needn’t look farther than the various commissions: people like Tom Kean, Lee Hamilton, Warren Rudman. Perhaps if the political process weren’t so much about blame, more people with the right stuff would come forward. But we insist on looking for something to brand public figures with. It’s too bad ex-basketball coach John Wooden isn’t about 50 years younger. He’d certainly fit the bill. Hell, the media would exhaust themselves on him.

  9. Forest Henry Book Says:

    Then comes the very real possibility that those who are educated in matters of State begin to confront their character by asking themselves serious ethical and moral questions about their roll in advancing the workings of Empire or Imperialism. Avoided are or cast as conspiratorial are issues of oligarchical dominance. “National Security” casts a pall over both serious debate, and those who may in fact be worthy of our respect for their wise representation of State matters. If the most central act of optimism is confronting truth; why is so much effort spent on spin?

  10. Gary Hart Says:

    I would add one more thought to the serious comments here: to be a statesman or woman requires something called statecraft–s sense of how to manage the interests of a nation in principled ways that seek to align those interests with the best interest of other nations of good will. Statecraft requires a subtle understanding of other cultures and their histories. Statecraft does not mock traditional allies who happen to disagree, as most of our allies did on the Iraq war.

  11. Brian Says:

    More than anything, the lack of statesmen is probably due to the current party structure in my opinion.

    As Forest Henry said, the attitude towards politics is similar to the attitude seen towards sports. One side vs. the other. Two teams going at it, ups and downs, comebacks and slumps, etc. While this is not necessarily harmful in and of itself (I personally enjoy participating in it), when the competition aspect of politics eclipses the true purpose of a political system, public service, is when the problems arise.

    The two parties and the media have bought into this mentality. A prime example is the issue of obstructionism, something that people often criticize the GOP for doing of late. When in the majority, a party will accuse the other of being uncompromising, uncaring, and overly partisan. Yet when they fall into the minority, they say act like they’re heroes protecting the arrogant majority from forcing its will on the public. It’s quite interesting to look at comments made by Republican Senators in 2005 on the issue, and compare them with comments made now.

    A statesmen would not advance the competitive side of a political party, and often they could “hinder” it. A statesmen would never stoop so low as to attack their opponent’s character. A statesmen would do what he/she believed was right, not what was politically beneficial in the short term. A statesmen would vote for a bill sponsored by the other party that, while they my philosophically disagree with it, will help countless numbers of people.

    So, if the two parties reject statesmen, than the only alternative is to be independent, but this is very difficult. Without the money to get your message out, and the name recognition of the two major parties, getting a statesmen elected to a high federal or state office is a daunting task.

    It is rare to find an individual with statesmen qualities who also understands and is willing to play our political system to advance their goals. A person who is a statesmen and a Happy Warrior (a person who enjoys the political game; President Truman was the person to whom this nickname belonged) is a very rare thing. I’d imagine a statesmen would become frustrated with the system, and sink into cynical apathy.

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