The Long View
The lion and the fox
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:37:00 12/27/2009
DIZZYING CHANGES IN POLITICAL allegiances have everyone wondering what they are all about and, more importantly, what they say about the leaders whose tents are suddenly expanding to include those who’d been trying to destroy those tents in the first place. In a nutshell, if politics is addition, is it worth the price?
Machiavelli, who has a reputation for being amoral, famously wrote, “It should be understood that there are two types of fighting: one with laws and the other with force. The first is most suitable for men, the second is most suitable for beasts, but it often happens that the first is not enough, which requires that we have recourse to the second.”
And here enters one of his most famous pieces of advice: “Since it is necessary for the prince to use the ways of beasts, he should imitate the fox and the lion, because the lion cannot defend himself from snares and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. Therefore, it is important to be a fox in order to understand the snares and a lion in order to terrify the wolves.”
This is particularly true of the presidency which confers power on those who seek it, to the extent that its seekers are often prepared to do anything and everything to obtain that power. And yet, in and of itself, obtaining that power enables marvelous things, not least the opportunity to do good. But neither can the presidency be achieved by one person nor its powers be effectively wielded by going it alone, thus the need for coalitions, for constituencies. But with either of these comes the inevitable need to compromise as each follower, each ally, joins the effort with different motivations and priorities in mind.
A candidate, therefore, even if possessed of a moral compass that guides all his public actions, must be like the lion and the fox. Elections are just points that, together, form the line of a public career. A candidate, both in seeking power and wielding it once elected, must have an idea of the direction in which the line of his political career is headed. Will it stop dead, because the leader has reached a point where he deems compromise impossible? Should impossibility even be in a leader’s political vocabulary?
Writing in Slate, Bruce Reed observed, “In recent years, the political world has come to dismiss principled compromise as an oxymoron.” Reed pointed out that the late Ted Kennedy showed “that it is possible to stand one’s ground and still seize every chance to make steady progress. . . Kennedy never had a problem summoning his followers to the ramparts one day and negotiating on their behalf the next.” The party faithful loved him for it; his political foes respected him for it.
As the Washington Post in its obituary pointed out with regard to Ted Kennedy: “He collaborated with a Republican president, George W. Bush, on education reform; with a Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), on immigration reform; and with an arch-conservative senator, J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, on major crime legislation.” Kennedy was able to do this because he never lost focus on who he was fighting for, which enabled him to pursue working at times with those he usually spent time fighting against.
He condemned Bush for the Iraq War but would not let his condemnation condemn children who could be aided by educational reform. He bitterly opposed Republican efforts to roll back public benefits but embraced McCain, a Republican stalwart who shared his social justice aspirations for immigrants. He was one of the leading lights of civil rights legislation but worked with an unrepentant racist, Thurmond, on making criminal laws more responsive to the poor and those traditionally disadvantaged in securing legal protection.
Returning to Reed’s commentary, here’s this gem: “Ted Kennedy was as steadfast a champion of his beliefs as the Senate has ever seen, but he always understood what too many in Washington forget: Every cause is better served when principle takes a seat at the table, and no cause moves forward when its champions walk away.” This is the human aspect of politics that those too focused on self-righteousness forget.
Kennedy, writing in Newsweek near the end of his life, said of his lifelong obsession with health coverage: “I long ago learned that you have to be a realist as you pursue your ideals.” For example, to the critics of his health plan who kept projecting its costs, he asked: What are the costs of inaction? You must move forward, even if inching along most of the time; but prepared, always, to seize the day, especially if, over time, you become more convinced of the rightness of your cause.
And yet, change is a funny thing: in refusing to compromise, you might forestall it forever, yet if you compromise too much, don’t you risk watering it down so much that it becomes meaningless? Kennedy seems to have pondered this question and came up with an answer that in the end gained him the respect of friends and foes alike. Change must be pursued relentlessly, but with an eye to incrementally achieving results as much as trying to achieve spectacular successes.
This reminds me of one of my favorite stories concerning Dominic Savio and Don Bosco. Obsessed, to the point of neurosis, with sanctity, Dominic Savio started putting sand in his soup for self-mortification. Don Bosco cheerily but bluntly disabused the young boy of the notion that this was either genuine piety or that suicide was a wise path to Heaven. If you want to live a life as an authentic witness to ideals, it begins by avoiding the temptation to be so self-righteous as to end up self-destructively neurotic.
Ted Kennedy said of his brother, Robert: “He should be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.” Not alone, but in the company of others.