POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Ambition: A Grievous Fault

by David Trumbull -- September 7, 2012

"I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected," are the oft quoted words of William Tecumseh Sherman who could easily have had the 1884 Republican nomination for the presidency if he wanted it. As it was, with Sherman out, the Republicans nominated James G. Blaine, a man unacceptible to many in the reform-minded wing of the GOP who defected to support the Democratic nominee, Grover Cleveland. Cleveland won in 1884, and again in in 1892, being the only Democrat elected president during the period -- 1861 to 1913 -- of Republican Party dominance of national politics. An argument can be made that a Republican Party united behind Sherman would have defeated the Democrat in 1884.

Can you imagine the man or woman today who, offered the presidential nomination of the party most likely to win, would say, "I decline"? Twenty years ago the joke (and truth of the matter) was that Bill Clinton had starting running at age 16 when he met President John F. Kennedy. My hunch is that Mitt Romney started running as soon as his father lost the 1968 Republican Party nomination for the presidency.

Popular governments always risk that the men and women most able to governed fairly and wisely may decline, making way for the low, petty, and ambitious to rise. The problem was recognized in the first, the ancient Athenian, democracy. In Book I of Plato's Republic, Socrates asserts that no one desires to take on the responsibility of governing others without pay, and the pay can take three forms: money, honor, or penalty for refusing. Good men do not wish to appear to be greedy hirelings demanding payment. Equally, the good man eschews ambition, the unseemly striving after public honors. The good man takes on leadership because he fears the penalty for refusal, which is to be ruled by lesser men. The point may be illustrated by reading Plutarch's Life of Nicias, the 5th century B.C. Athenian general. Nicias was unwilling to stand up to Alcibiades and other lesser, unprincipled men, leaving a vacuum in which those inferior leaders rose, leading to the fall of Athens.

Centuries before the same tendency was observed. In the parable of the trees (Judges 9: 8-15). The trees decided to choose a king to reign over them. First they ask the olive tree. But the olive tree declines, saying "Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honor God and man?" Next the trees ask the fig tree. But the fig tree also declines, saying," Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit?" Next they ask the grape vine, who answers, "Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man?" Still seeking a king, the trees finally turn to the useless bramble and bid it be their ruler. The low-lying harsh bramble accepts and says, "Come and put your trust in my shadow" and warns of fiery destruction for those who do chafe at his rule. One thing you must say of the bramble, it is ambitious.

Beware of ambitious men with that lean and hungry look!