Foxes, Lions and Presidents


A prince, Machiavelli wrote, must be both lion and fox. All our great presidents have embodied these two seemingly contradictory qualities.

Lincoln's resoluteness sustained the Union through the Civil War, but he kept his armies in the field through shameless political maneuvers. Franklin D. Roosevelt's buoyant confidence -- and blatant political manipulations -- carried the nation through depression and world war. Indeed, James MacGregor Burns entitled his FDR biography "The Lion and the Fox."

Machiavelli's criteria may fit a campaign in which voters express so much cynicism. We have certainly seen plenty of dogged determination and political craftiness this year. So if we're only looking for grit and guile, maybe any these three guys will do.

Our great presidents, however, have done much more than display tenacity and cleverness in pursuit of personal ambition. They also have shown a lion's courage and a fox's cunning in the service of selfless goals and noble ideals. Machiavelli instructed his prince with the right metaphors, but in the wrong spirit. His cynicism seems more characteristic of a Nixon than a Lincoln or a Roosevelt.

The Great Emancipator could be ruthless and sly, but he harnessed those talents to the high purposes of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. Roosevelt used his jaunty fearlessness and backroom savvy to achieve in government the simple moral principle Endicott Peabody had instilled in him at Groton School: that we all have a responsibility for the welfare of our fellow human beings.

As I get ready to cast my ballot next week, I'm looking for something beyond courage and cunning. Roosevelt called the presidency "pre-eminently a place of moral leadership." Who has the requisite qualities of heart and spirit?

George Bush doesn't. He seems to lack any internal core of principles to guide him or us through difficult times. He has taken opposing stances on abortion and civil rights, on new taxes and voodoo economics. His positions seem to depend solely on his own temporary political interests. His flip-flopping mocks his campaign themes of "values" and "trust." As Bill Moyers says, Mr. Bush is the most cynical man in American politics.

The absence of any principled compass has even cast Mr. Bush adrift in foreign affairs, supposedly his field of expertise. His triumph in the Persian Gulf War turned to dust with the revelations that he had first armed and then tried to appease the tyrant Saddam Hussein. No true champion of democracy would have made those blunders.

Nor does Mr. Bush deserve the personal credit he so grandly takes for the final defeat of communism. The wall was crumbling before he ever took office. It fell after 40 years of stalwart bipartisan American resistance which began with Truman and Vandenberg and ended with Reagan and Nunn.

In fact, ironically, President Bush tried to prop up Mikhail Gorbachev when that leader wanted to hold the Soviet Union together and preserve the communist system. Mr. Bush kept supporting him long past the point by which he had been discredited and abandoned by Boris Yeltsin and the other advocates of traditional American values -- national independence and democracy in the former Soviet republics.

Ross Perot hasn't shown the needed qualities of the heart either. He withdrew because he didn't think he could win. But he didn't anticipate his supporters' disillusionment. He re-entered the campaign only because his vanity couldn't stand the humiliation of going down in history as "the Yellow Ross of Texas."

In contrast to these two men, Bill Clinton as governor of Arkansas has demonstrated a sustained dedication to the conviction that government has the responsibility to ensure the general well-being of its people. He seems to care. His fascination and facility with programs and policies reflect that spirit. He has pulled his poor state up from near the bottom in job creation, income growth and education.

No one seems to doubt Mr. Clinton's cunning. But his character is in question for vacillations far less serious than Mr. Bush's fluctuating positions. At the same time Governor Clinton has not received the credit he deserves for political courage. He braved the wrath of Arkansas teachers to require accountability as a part of his education-reform program. He has been a leader in guiding the Democratic Party away from the failed agendas of its reactionary liberal wing.

We've had four years of Machiavellian leadership. Lacking a principled center, it has led us into decline at home and confusion abroad. Our next president must have the cunning of the fox -- but in the service of the lion's purposes. He won't be able to achieve that balance unless he has a lion's heart.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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