Friday, February 12, 2010



In centuries past, political leaders led much more interesting lives than they do today. They were not just politicians and party bosses. They were more than petty thugs and criminals. They did more with their time than merely sign legislation, negotiate treaties and give speeches. They had more freedom to be themselves, not the calculated personas we see in rulers today. In the past, rulers have not just been commercial administrators. They have been painters, singers, writers, sculptors, generals, conquerors, heroes, scientists, philosophers and theater lovers. But today, most political rulers have no outside interests: They are usually just devious lawyers and cutthroat business tycoons who crave reelection.

By American standards, Barack Obama may be "interesting." But he is still pretty staid compared to history's more well-rounded rulers. In brief, he's just another wealthy lawyer who wears a lapel pin and panders to business interests. Come to think of it, no American President has ever been very well-rounded. The office simply does not lend itself to flamboyance or rebelliousness. Perhaps that has something to do with Democracy: People in a Democracy want relatively boring "stewards" to manage their affairs. In the American Democracy, for instance, people want stability, not calamity. After all, you can't make money without stability. That explains why virtually every American President has been either a lawyer or business baron. Lawyers and business barons are "stable people." Boring as hell, generally, but stable. They don't invite calamity, at least intentionally.

By contrast, interesting people aren't usually very stable. And they court calamity. That's why American Presidents aren't very interesting. American Presidents just want to keep the economy going and get reelected. That might yield a comfortable existence, but it isn't very memorable.

But rulers like Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786) are memorable. Frederick was no mere commercial orchestrator. He was a general, a conqueror and an arts patron. He invited French philosophers to stay with him in his palace and engaged in homoerotic banter with his all-male courtiers. He played the harpsichord and the flute. He carried on correspondence (in French) with Voltaire and wrote music in his spare time. He even penned marches for his army. About his wife, he said: "There can be neither love nor friendship between us." He never had children; his wife lived in her own castle and he visited her once a year for tea. And he even tried to flee his own country with his ostensibly gay lover when he was 18. His father caught them before they left. Then he forced his son to watch as he had his lover beheaded.

Now that is interesting. A man like that could never be President: Too interesting.

Yet Prussia became a major European power under Frederick's rule. Frederick might have been a composer, artist, general, philosopher and arts patron. But he also ran the country extremely well. He was interesting and well-rounded. He inspired faith in his people. His example shows that well-rounded rulers can be exceptional, despite the impulsion to be boring commercial orchestrators.

I find it significant that no one remembers Frederick for his commercial tact. In fact, no one ever thinks about commerce when they think about Frederick. They think about his military prowess, cultivation and Enlightenment. They think about the things that made him a well-rounded person, not his skill as a financier.

In a way, Frederick's example shows that great rulers transcend commerce. After all, people don't remember quiet bourgeois comfort. They remember unique personalities who vault beyond the banal concerns of prospering at business. They remember interesting people.

That is why most American Presidents are quite forgettable. They just aren't interesting. The only ones worth remembering did things beyond commercial management. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. He saved the country from dissolution, led it through war and abolished slavery. He might not have been an artist or composer, but he spent his time attending to matters larger than commercial management. In America, that is memorable. After all, almost all the other Presidents did little but manage the economy. Like Frederick the Great, Lincoln transcended commerce. That is why he is the most memorable American President.

But even Lincoln was not as interesting as Frederick. Lincoln was just another lawyer in a long line of lawyers who became Presidents. An exceptional lawyer, to be sure, but nonetheless just another bourgeois. He was a creative statesman and even an amateur inventor, but still nothing like Frederick. America simply does not tolerate such colorfulness in its political rulers. They would never get elected in the first place. Can you imagine what the media would say if a Presidential candidate admitted he tried to flee the country with his gay lover? Or that he preferred to speak French? That would not go over too well in South Carolina. America just doesn’t like flamboyant originals in high office. Especially flamboyant originals who might be gay.

Instead, America likes mediocre career politicians in high office. America likes one-dimensional Washington insiders who know how to work the system just well enough to keep unemployment down and income up. It does not want men like Frederick the Great, or even Abraham Lincoln. Put simply, American democracy does not want leaders who rock the boat too much, even if rocking the boat improves things in the end. Well-rounded men might be brilliant, but they are risky. And commerce abhors risk.

It is no accident that someone killed Lincoln. That's what happens to American rulers when they get just a little too interesting for comfort. And that's a shame, because interesting people can lead Nations to incredible new heights.

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