David Brooks: For 2008, An American Themistocles





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 demoralized Greek city-states into making a stand against the Persians at Salamis. He understood Persian impatience, and maneuvered the empire into a battle on waters most favorable to the heavier and slower Greek warships. He apparently lied to the Persian king, Xerxes, by promising to commit treason, and so tricked the Persians into a hasty attack.

The Athenians valued Themistocles, but they never really loved him. He was pushed from power mere months after his epic victory. As Plutarch later reported, the Athenians “treated him like a plane-tree; when it was stormy, they ran under his branches for shelter, but as soon as it was fine, they plucked his leaves and lopped his branches.”

When we Americans pick a leader, we usually look for the Leonidas type: direct, faithful and upright. We usually pick someone we hope is uplifting. Especially since Watergate, Americans have sought presidents uncorrupted by capital intrigue....

But I suspect the voters will go to the polling places with a colder eye this time. In any case, before we get too lost in the tactics and personalities of the campaign, it might be a good idea to actually figure out what kind of leader we are seeking to hire, what qualities the times require. Is it those of Themistocles or those of Leonidas, or someone else?

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