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Di Leo: Lessons in Thoughtful Statesmanship

BJW8W5 Impassioned debate in the House of Representatives, December 1860 to January 1861. Hand-colored woodcut. Image shot 1860. Exact date unknown.

By John F. DiLeo – 

We inhabit a political moment that refuses to be taken seriously. Every attempt to take up the genuine challenges our country confronts is obstructed by a stubborn combination of crude cynicism and bitter factionalism. Every appeal to the unifying ideals of the American experience is met with ignorant ingratitude or histrionic despair. We tell the young they are inheriting a garbage heap and then are surprised they want to throw their heritage away. We tell our leaders we want entertainment and then are shocked when they behave like clowns. We confront a vacuum of civic virtue and a dearth of responsible leadership.

It’s hard to know where to begin in taking on such daunting problems. But what if our failure to take our common life seriously is as much a cause as an effect of these civic deformations? What if the place to start is by changing our attitude about the political?

This is the implicit premise of Daniel Mahoney’s brilliant new book, The Statesman as Thinker. On its face the book is an engaging and illuminating study in the highest forms of political leadership. But in its depths it is a call to make some room for an idea of greatness amid our democratic din, and to grasp that political greatness in a free society demands moderation and magnanimity rather than vulgar self-indulgence pretending to be strength.

Such greatness may need to come from above before it can come from below. The vices of democracy are not likely to be best counterbalanced by the democratic multitude to begin with. But a society like ours might learn to take itself more seriously through the leadership of statesmen who take it seriously themselves. And what makes such statesmen possible is above all a particular kind of character—a mix of virtues that is Mahoney’s foremost subject.



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