In most places around the country, the point of acquiring power is to do something with it.
Your state’s legislators pass a corporate tax cut to attract new business. Or, your mayor deploys city funds to repair streets damaged by winter’s snow and ice, paving the way for a smooth commute.
But D.C. is different.
More than other places, in D.C., the best use of power is not to discharge it toward solving some real or concrete problem that exists in the world, but to use power to create even more power. Whether that’s a better committee assignment, a bigger office, deeper donor pool, or a bigger professional network, there’s an urgency to spend what you have in furtherance of your ambition for more, to apply all of one’s tools in a strategy that (swiftly) generates more and greater power.
It’s a unique environment, and one in which military historian Eliot Cohen has thrived for more than 30 years. He’s advised presidents, cabinet secretaries, generals and diplomats. “In government and out,” writes David Petraeus, “Eliot Cohen has consistently been one of the shrewdest observers of the exercise of power.” In his new book The Hollow Crown, Cohen finds in Shakespeare the characters and stories that illustrate what he has learned about the ebb and flow of power in the real world, and it’s on this theme that we pick up our conversation. I talked with the author about military leadership, Coriolanus, and the Henry plays in part one of our conversation, which you can find here. Now, on to part two …
What is the state of “power” in 2024?
Power is more diffuse today than in previous periods of history.
As a group, elites don’t have the same voice as they once did because the number of elites has expanded, so you don’t have groups that have a high level of authority. For example, you once had senior clerics in this country who had a profound moral voice. I grew up in Boston and I’m Jewish but if Cardinal Richard Cushing said something, then people would really pay attention. Presidents of the great university played a role in our national debate that they do not play right now. Because power has gotten very diffuse, it’s sometimes in the hands of people who are irresponsible. Look at Congress. Our committee chairs are not powerful anymore. The Speaker of the House once was powerful. We’ve watched several of them get defenestrated. The elites lost their moral authority and there is no coherent leadership group rising in its place.
What concerns you about the state of politics in our country?
I am concerned that power is being separated from character. What one hears in Washington, DC is that someone is “smart.” That’s the least important thing to have in a leader. It’s very easy to rent smart or hire smart people—it’s much harder to find people with good judgment and good character. I don’t think we’re living in a world that cares about honesty, loyalty, consistency, willingness to sacrifice or give of themselves. And, on the judgment side, do our leaders have an ability to understand enough what is happening to decide what ought to be done? The absence of that quality is how you get into trouble. I make reference in the book to George Washington, who was far from being the smartest but had the strongest character and best judgment. As a counter-example, Richard II was a brilliant talker … and he’s the last guy on earth you want running something.
But Machiavelli separated politics from ethics some 500 years ago, and so I wonder if this phenomenon you observe of an absence of character in politics is really that new at all …
Yes, but first, we don’t have to accept that Machiavelli was necessarily right! Also, Machiavelli had his own conception of virtue, or virtú, that is very different from ours, but still involved some qualities of character that we don’t have much of.
What is Shakespeare’s first lesson on power?
I take away from Shakespeare that all power is dangerous. It’s dangerous when you inherit it because you may not be suited to its exercise. I mention Jack Welch and Jeffrey Immelt, how that plan for succession at General Electric didn’t work out despite all of Welch’s great processes for identifying high performing executives, something he devoted himself to for some 20 years. Acquiring power by manipulation means you’re dealing people at the top who are very slippery. Go to the Federalist Papers. The genius of the American Constitution is that ambition will counter ambition—it’s not set up for a constant flow of brilliant statesmen. I was just in Israel with a delegation of national security people and was in a discussion with an old friend, and this person was saying all we need are honest judges and good people in charge. I disagree. You simply cannot count on those people always being there …
Michael Ledeen said the best government is a good czar. The worst government is a bad czar. There are more bad czars than good czars, so democracy becomes a very good alternative.
Yes, sooner or later, you’re going to end up with bad people in those positions and the system must carry on anyway. I had a professor who was a refugee from Europe during World War II. She said there are two reasons to study political science: either you’re fascinated by power or you’re afraid of power. “You Americans, you’re fascinated by it. I’m afraid of it.”
Shakespeare filled his plays with Machiavellian archetypes, people like Lady Macbeth and Iago who ultimately fail to control the outcomes of their schemes for power. What did Shakespeare think of Machiavelli?
He certainly knew about him, because Richard III, before he becomes king, makes reference to him. But his picture of human beings is far more subtle and nuanced than Machiavelli’s. Lady Macbeth, for example, is consumed with guilt and eventually goes mad; Iago arranges the ruin of Othello for no particular purpose, because he can never replace him. These are not Machiavellian characters like, for example, Cesare Borgia.
You note that Machiavelli believed there’s more “virtú” in a Republic because you have so many people striving. We’re in an election year. Politicians across the country will scheme, deceive and strive in hopes of acquiring power. We should see this “virtú” in abundance. What do you suppose Machiavelli would think about our politics in 2024?
I suspect that he would think that we are a pretty pathetic lot. A lot of politicians whine, a lot of them are cowardly, a lot fear their own followers. Whatever that is, it’s not virtú.
Let’s end with a few brief questions.
Which Shakespeare play has become too popular?
Macbeth. Macbeth and Richard III are my favorites but, if there’s someone you don’t like, then you say they’re like Macbeth or Richard. Both are wonderful plays but they are overdone.
Which Shakespeare play should be more popular?
The Henry VI plays should be read much more widely, all three of the Henry VI plays. There is no strong king or strong leadership. There’s a bunch of squabbling courtiers and politicians. Some people are villainous, others are naïve and both come to bad ends. You have demagogues interested in turning things upside down but don’t have an idea of what they want to accomplish. It’s something worth thinking about.
Finally, who is your favorite character from Shakespeare?
Prospero. He’s a flawed human being. He was oblivious as to how he was overthrown. In the first parts of The Tempest, he could be cruel. He has a short fuse and could be arbitrary and is tempted to be vengeful, but at the end he makes a decision to renounce his power. He becomes human because he can walk away from power without illusions. He knows he’s coming to the end but he can relinquish it. He uses power well but also knows he’s got to give it up if he wants to be a normal human being, and that’s a very rare thing.
John J. Waters is the author of the postwar novel River City One (Simon and Schuster), and a former deputy assistant secretary of homeland security.