Thank God the election is over. If one more automated pollster called me during dinner, I was prepared to go live in the wild on raw deer meat like Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain. I have zero interest in recapping the results, exulting or tooth-gnashing over the results, or talking about the results. But this entire election process has left me with one puzzling question: why do we require our leaders to be likeable?
Over and over again, I heard it from both sides of the party line: “I voted for him because he seems like he’d be such a nice guy to have dinner with.” Or “Candidate _____ will need to present himself as more likeable if he wants people to vote for him.” I just wondered Why? What does being likeable, or being a good dinner companion, have to do with being able to run a nation?
Maybe it’s because I’m a historical novelist, and I’ve researched so many brilliant leaders of history who were also cold SOBs . . . but I don’t care if my president is a nice guy. I don’t care if he loves dogs, kisses babies, cheats on his wife, or spends any time with his kids. None of that is any of my business, and it has nothing to do with the job he is elected to fulfill. I don’t care if he’d be fun to have over for a visit either, because unless I get elected to the cabinet or win the Medal of Honor (both of which are about equally likely), then I will never have the opportunity to sit down and chat with my commander-in-chief. So why should that figure into my vote? I don’t need to like the guy or gal leading this country; I just need them to be a good leader.
I’m not recommending we return to absolute monarchy or the rule of emperors. (Though if I’d been subjected to one more set of negative campaign ads, I might have changed my tune on that.) The divine right of kings is nothing to call fair or just. But it did allow some remarkable leaders of men to change the world, leaders who would have no chance in today’s system for one simple reason: they could never have survived an open election, because they were all about as warm and cuddly as a piranha. Yet I’d pick any of these guys and gals in a heartbeat, even if I think they’d be the world’s worst drinking companions:
1. Emperor Hadrian. He’s the chief baddie in my last book Empress of the Seven Hills, so you can guess I don’t really like the guy. And I don’t: history records him as a mercurial know-it-all, charming but cold, with a habit of dropping his friends once they no longer proved useful. But there’s no denying Hadrian was a great ruler: he was a smart and sensible workaholic who sponsored huge building programs, stabilized the empire’s crumbling outer regions, set the legions to working instead of fighting or rebelling, and pioneered a sensible peace policy over expensive and bloody expansionism. He’s counted among the Five Good Emperors of Rome’s golden age, and he should be–nice guy or not.
2. King Louis XI of France. Nicknamed “The Universal Spider,” and he deserved it: scheming, paranoid, superstitious, secretive, and vicious. Also a brilliant bureaucrat who pioneered trade fairs and road-building, promoted humbly-born advisers for their ability rather than their birth, and stamped down once and for all on the warring feudal lords who had dragged France through the chaos of the Hundred Years War. He’s credited as the first modern French King, dragging his country out of the Middle Ages kicking and screaming. A better legacy than most nice guys.
3. Cardinal Richelieu, Chief Minister to Louis XIII of France. He’s got a reputation as a villain, largely because of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and all its movie remakes, and certainly the Cardinal was no dewy-eyed lover of the people. He once commented of his French subjects, “They are not constituted for war; at the start they are all ardor and bravery, but they lack the patience and control to await the propitious moment.” Wouldn’t you love to hear a candidate blunt enough to say that during the foreign policy debate? Me too, but it would lose him the election. Cardinal Richelieu could never have won anybody over as a nice guy–and good thing he didn’t have to, or his country would have missed out on a great patron of the arts who also molded France into a strong and centralized nation.
4. Catherine the Great. Of course what people remember of this Russian czarina’s legacy is her list of lovers and some vague rumors about a horse. In fact, this cool-headed lady was an educated workaholic who sponsored the Russian Enlightenment and always put her empire above her love life and family–she had no qualms deciding to set her son aside as heir when she determined he would not make a good ruler. A far cry from today’s political ladies forever posing with their families so they come across as “more accessible.” Catherine had zero interest in appearing either soft or accessible; she once remarked “I shall be an autocrat; that’s my trade. And the good Lord shall forgive me; that’s His.”
5. The Duke of Wellington. Anybody with the nickname the Iron Duke is not warm and cuddly. He was not one of your man-of-the-common-soldier generals, either; the Duke of Wellington was a cold, brilliant, aristocratic fighting machine who demanded the best out of his men as a matter of course, and got it because they’d rather die than fail to live up to his high standards. The Iron Duke trounced Napoleon and then went on to become Prime Minister. An age when being brilliant and cold were not seen as deficits in the polls.
I wouldn’t necessarily have voted for Emperor Hadrian, Louis XI, Cardinal Richelieu, Catherine the Great, or the Duke of Wellington to serve as my President in the modern world–they were products of their eras, not ours. But none of them would have risen to the presidential polls at all, because none of them would have lasted five minutes in a 21st century general election. They all largely had no common touch, they didn’t pander to public opinion, and they would have gazed in utter horror had any campaign manager told them “You gotta be more likeable!” These five leaders all placed a higher value on being effective than being liked; on being smart rather than being your buddy.
Not a bad lesson to take from history. Let’s keep it in mind for 2016.