He's Machiavellian, and that's a compliment


NEW YORK -- An Italian political writer who set out in every direction to study leadership and governing can make you think there may be more to President Clinton than meets the critical American eye. In his interviews on that subject, the Italian was taken by a particularly Clintonesque answer to one of his questions:

"Wishing to make as few mistakes as possible, I conduct my government day by day and arrange my affairs hour by hour -- because the times are more powerful than our brains."

The writer was Niccolo Machiavelli. The year was 1505. The politician determined to go with the flow of the times was Pandolfo Patrucci, first lord of the city-state of Siena. Machiavelli was a 34-year-old Florentine diplomat, and the quote was from one of his reports back to his own city-state of Florence. This was almost 10 years before he began writing his masterwork of political amorality, "The Prince."

Two years earlier, in 1503, in Rome observing the election of Julius II as pope, he stood with Cardinal Francesco Soderini, who was the brother of Piero Soderini, the gonfalonier (leader) of Florence. The cardinal said this: "Not for many years has our city had so much to hope for from a new pope. . . . But only if you know how to harmonize with the times."

Patrucci and Soderini were, Machiavelli said, two of the shrewdest politicians of their time, and their perceptions were refined in "The Prince" in this passage:

"The prince who adapts the way he acts according to the quality of the times succeeds, in much the same way as the person whose way of proceeding is out of step with the times is unsuccessful."

Machiavelli concluded that three of the leaders he studied all failed for the same reason: inflexibility as times changed. Pope Julius II; Cesare Borgia, the duke of Romagna; and Maximilian I, ++ leader of the Holy Roman Empire, were very different men -- one was impetuous, one was violent, one was cautious -- but all were too rigid to change when the circumstances around them changed.

The great leaders

Nobody has ever accused Bill Clinton of being inflexible. That may be the good news. The flexible are not usually the great leaders. Greatness, Machiavelli concluded, required "the assumption of great undertakings." But the flexible ones usually are judged successes -- even if one of the things they are flexible about is telling the truth.

Wrote Machiavelli in "The Prince":

"Everyone understands how laudable it is for a prince to keep his word and live with integrity and not cunning. Nonetheless, experience shows that nowadays those princes who have accomplished great things have had little respect for keeping their word and have known how to confuse men's minds with cunning. In the end they have overcome those who have preferred honesty. . . . A prudent ruler, therefore, cannot, and should not, keep his word when keeping it is to his disadvantage, and when the reasons that made him promise no longer exist."

The Italian seer also added this advice for a prince, a swift nick to the body politic:

"If all men were good, this precept [on lying] would not hold good, but since they are bad and would not keep their word to you, you do not have to keep yours to them."

That is a pretty good sampler to show why men of politics still read Machiavelli almost 500 years after his service as a second-level official in a city-state more beautiful than powerful.

I was reminded of that the other day by another foreign political writer, Ze'ev Chafetz, an Israeli columnist who was once press secretary to Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Mr. Chafetz, American-born and back to see his daughter graduate from Columbia, and I were talking about Bill Clinton.

He said: "He can't fail, can he? The economy is good and there is no real external threat to the country."

Machiavelli might have said the same. Greatness may be beyond the reach of President Clinton because his one attempt at a great undertaking, national health care, produced nothing. But success may be more possible than we think. Those of us who record the day-to-day flexibility and cunning of President Clinton do have to acknowledge that he may well grow in remembrance -- leaving us to explain how we got it right every day but wrong overall.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/28/97

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