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 ...view middle of the document...
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.
For over the past few years, America’s enemies have been more cunning than we have. Whether it was Mohamed Atta with the box cutters, bin Laden escaping at Tora Bora, the Baathists with their insurgency, Zarqawi inciting an Iraqi civil war, or Ahmadinejad maneuvering his way toward a nuclear bomb, America’s enemies seem to have been rendered clever by their relative weakness while we’ve been rendered stupid by our might.
And the tasks ahead require cleverness more than Gary Cooper simplicity and virtue. The next leader will have to build a coalition of autocrats against the extremists, not grow apoplectically rigid in the face of their barbarism. The next leader will have to manipulate the self-interest of other countries and factions, not bully them with ultimatums. The next leader will have to have an intimate knowledge of the apparatus of government and the limits and capacities of what it can do.
In other words, what the country seems to need is somebody who understands power, and the subtlety of its use, and who has had direct...