The 4 Qualities of a True Statesman

by Brett & Kate McKay on January 30, 2012 · 216 comments

in A Man's Life

Here in the United States, the inauguration of our next president is a year away, and the Republican primary season is in full swing. Journalists and pundits dissect the candidates’ every speech, appearance, and debate, analyzing what they did right or wrong, and who is waxing and waning in the polls. These talking heads, along with the people watching and listening to them at home, evaluate the candidates on who seems the most “authentic,” had the best line of the evening, or released the hardest-hitting advertisement. The whole thing can oftentimes seem more like a sport or entertaining sideshow than the lead-up to an important election.

So what should the more serious-minded citizen be looking for in the next leader of the free world? What criteria beyond hair and quips might a man use to evaluate and judge candidates for office, or those already in office?

Opinions will certainly differ on such a significant and pressing question. But while I was in college, I was introduced to an excellent yardstick for measuring our leaders, one that has stuck with me ever since.

It was there I took a couple of courses with Dr. J. Rufus Fears, professor of an incredibly manly subject: the history of freedom. One of the things the good professor emphasized to us captivated students was that a politician and a statesman are not the same thing. A statesman, Fears argues, is not a tyrant; he is the free leader of a free people and he must possess four critical qualities:

  1. A bedrock of principles
  2. A moral compass
  3. A vision
  4. The ability to build a consensus to achieve that vision

Let us now explore these four criteria of a democratic statesman in greater depth.

1. A Bedrock of Principles

The statesman builds his platform on a foundation of firm, unchanging, fundamental truths. These are the things he believes at his very core, his overarching philosophy.  Just as in the foundation of a house, storms may buffet the structure, opposition and challenges may arise, times will change, but the foundation remains. A statesman may change the details of his policies and his methods for achieving those policies, but only inasmuch as those short-term tactics of expediency serve the purpose of furthering his bedrock of principles in the long run.

2.  A Moral Compass

Dr. Fears argues that the modern politician makes decisions by using “antennae.” He puts his feelers out there to gauge the public mood. Once he figures out which way the wind is blowing, he then shapes himself and his message to give the people exactly what they want. But as Dr. Fears would hammer home again and again to us: A statesman does not govern by public opinion polls.

No, the true statesman makes his decisions by following the dictates of his own moral compass. He is not a relativist; he believes in absolute truths, and his moral compass is rooted in a sense of absolute right and absolute wrong. When something is wrong, he plainly says it is wrong and does everything in his power to fight against it. When something is right, he is willing to overcome any opposition to preserve and spread it. The statesman is ambitious—he must be to obtain a position of power—but there are things he simply will and will not do to get to the top. He is a man of integrity; he speaks the truth. He leads by moral authority and represents all that is best in his countrymen.

3. A Vision

A statesman has a clear vision of what his country and his people can become. He knows where he wants to take them and what it will take to get there.

Fears argues that a statesman’s foresight is one of his most important qualities, as he must be able to recognize problems on the horizon and be able to come up with solutions that are good not only for the short-term, but for the long-term as well. The statesman keeps in mind not only the here and now, but the world future generations will inherit.

4.  The Ability to Build a Consensus to Achieve That Vision

A politician may have a bedrock of principles, a moral compass, and a vision, but if he lacks the ability to build a consensus around his vision, his efforts to change policies, laws, and the course of history will largely be in vain.

A statesman, who again is a free leader of a free people, must enlist those who serve with him in the government to support his initiatives, and their willingness to do so rests on the pressure they feel from their constituents to align themselves with the statesman’s vision. Thus, a statesman’s success in building a consensus ultimately hinges on his ability to convince his countrymen of the soundness of his philosophy.

To win their hearts, the statesman does not use slick advertisements and PR campaigns. Ads and propaganda, Fears argues, are the tools of the despot. Rather, the statesman harnesses the power of the written, and especially the spoken word. He is master orator. His lifelong study of great books and the lessons of history allow him to speak to the people in intelligent, potent, well-reasoned arguments.

Because a statesman follows his moral compass instead of opinion polls, his ideas are often initially out of step with the public mood. But instead of tailoring his rhetoric to that mood, he speaks to the very best within his countrymen. He understands that while their ideals may be deeply buried, powerful rhetoric can bring them forth and activate them. The strength of his words comes from the fact that he actually believes what he says. And he does not make his countrymen’s hearts soar and burn with empty promises; he keeps his word and does what he says he will do.

In considering these four qualities of a democratic statesman, it may seem like a real one has never existed, because if one had, surely everyone would be in agreement on his exalted place in history. But in truth, even those who agree on these criteria would have plenty of disagreement over what principles the statesman should espouse, what constitutes a moral right and wrong, and most importantly, what constitutes acceptable means in obtaining his vision.

Professor Fears believes that the three greatest statesmen in history are Pericles of Athens, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill. For all three men, their bedrock of principles rested on the ideal of freedom: democratic liberty, equality under the law, and individual freedom—the freedom to live as you choose. And these men had a vision of expanding this liberty further, out to the common man. And yet they all courted controversy in some of the measures they deemed necessary in order to achieve their vision. Churchill is criticized for things like the Bombing of Dresden and his advocacy of imperialism (he did not believe that national independence and freedom were the same thing, and thought that British colonists would have more freedom and liberty under colonial rule than if a country was turned over to a small clique of its own that would rule with tyranny). And Lincoln suspended the right to habeaus corpus during the Civil War.

Some feel that such actions cannot be justified, no matter the end goal. But Dr. Fears, who from what I gather from his lectures and books leans libertarian, sees the broader picture—he argues that every statesman must set priorities, and this can sometimes mean “saying no to the aspirations of one people for another.” In other words, even if the methods of the statesmen he admires were not always very savory in the short-term, what matters most in his estimation is that they ultimately led to more freedom for more people in the long-term.

So who do you personally think are the great statesmen from history? Do you think there are true statesmen among us now? If not, which of these qualities are the politicians out there lacking?

**Please note: Obviously this discussion will be political in nature, and while you are welcome to share your opinion in a calm, intelligent, civil, and gentlemanly manner, even the slightest whiff of snark, rancor, or any kind of unmanly silliness will get your comment deleted. Statesmen are great, but on this thread I will be a tyrant, ruling with an iron fist. All of which is to say: no nincompoops allowed.**

{ 216 comments… read them below or add one }

201 Derek February 10, 2012 at 10:31 pm

While I appreciate the fact the Gary Johnson is mentioned along with Buddy Roemer and Ron Paul, I don’t think any of them are statesmen. I also would define a statesman differently than the article.

A statesman is visionary engaged in effective public service, often using the skills of an orator. Part of the status is turning your vision into action.

Buddy has had almost no success in the actioning of his vision.

Ron, despite decades in office, has had similar results, or lack thereof. Only in the last four-five years has his message been picked up by the masses, which is what has caused the changes. He gets deserved credit for being a visionary, but I don’t think that’s enough without the whole effecting change part.

Gary is the most statesmanlike of the three, with his terms as Governor pointing to his ability to put his vision to work. The reason I’m withholding the statesman title is I haven’t seen much from him trying to convince others. Most of what I’ve seen is him presenting facts and his opinions, and leaving it to the hearer to change their mind or not. Though I suppose that could be viewed as a convincing tactic… (I’m hopeful for his candidacy either way. I will welcome the opportunity to upgrade my opinion of him.)

202 Jason February 12, 2012 at 2:42 am

Derek, I would have to disagree about Ron Paul not being a statesman. Like the article said, a statesman’s views generally are ahead of their time. But as you can see, Ron Paul’s views are starting to become more mainstream. He is picking up steam, and making a very legitimate run for the office of president. The change has not happened yet, that I agree with. But it IS happening now. Suddenly, the GOP and the Democrats are starting to chirp to a different tune. Now cutting taxes and cutting government are the cool things to talk about. When a politician at least tries to sound more libertarian, I call it “Ron Pauling”. I think Ron Paul is the very definition of a statesman. Buttttt I could just be biased because he is my candidate of choice :)

203 Paul H. February 13, 2012 at 11:00 am

RON PAUL 2012!

204 Alan February 15, 2012 at 1:09 am

Agreed. Ron Paul 2012!

205 Steve McGee February 16, 2012 at 10:29 am

I would say Ron Paul is a great example of a statesman – because he’s changing the political environment through steadfast principles, a clearly communicated moral compass, an articulated (yet obfuscated by the media) vision, and an ability to bring people together – people who hated each other before the Campaign for Liberty.

His ‘lack of success’ for the previous decades reminds me of the book Good to Great, by Jim Collins. One of the factors of the wildly successful turn-around examples in that book was called the ‘flywheel’. It demonstrated that companies that committed to focusing on a few important, insightful things and put years of effort toward it would eventually experience a ‘breakthrough’ in results. The behaviors started years before the significant improvement in results.

That is what has happened with Ron Paul’s career in government. Years of sticking to the behaviors, based on the principles, vision and values, resulting in a delayed but very significant success.

His character is also similar to the executives profiled in the Good to Great companies, like Coleman Mockler and Darwin Smith. Also, Paul contrasts with Romney and Newt in similar ways the G2G executives differed from ‘Chainsaw’ Allen and Iacocca.

206 Nick February 16, 2012 at 7:25 pm

Theodore Roosevelt. Hands down.

207 Ben Robbins February 17, 2012 at 9:29 am

I’m curious to know whether you (anyone, really) think that agreement with one’s own beliefs is a prerequisite to granting statesman status. Also, what is the threshold for “consensus” to be reached? None of the examples offered reached 100% consensus, so I suppose the criteria must accept something less. All that is to point out that I haven’t seen any mention thus far of our current president, which is interesting given how well he has met all four criteria. Perhaps that greatest proof that he has begun achieving his vision is the opposition that is mounting from what is now a minority of conservatives in the U.S., albeit a very concerned minority. Is it possible to acknowledge great statesmanship from a leader with whom we don’t agree, whether Churchill or Obama, and can we learn from these examples also?

208 Ben Robbins February 17, 2012 at 2:47 pm

As you can tell, when I said, “I haven’t seen any mention thus far of our current president,” what I meant was I hadn’t yet found the Previous Comments button.

209 Scott Bookamer February 17, 2012 at 2:52 pm

I didn’t think this article encouraged the idea that you had to agree in all points with the man you designate as “statesman”. If that were so, a statesman would only be a statesman after he had built a fantastic 100% consensus, and that consensus would have to endure throughout history for him to be regarded as one by posterity. I believe #4 only says “ability to build a consensus to achieve that vision”.
Regarding Ben Robbins’ comment, I’d say the consensus threshold described in this article is just what it takes to achieve “that vision”, and may be either majority or minority. We hope (and often see) that our leaders understand Vision must be clearly flexible and accommodating to surprising improvements offered by political enemies.
For us to consider a president with whom we disagree a Statesmen is to be statesmen ourselves. We understand principle, seeing past ourselves and into right and wrong. Based on that mature understanding, we see the future as one that must be achieved together, necessitating humble cooperation and frequent vision-correction.
I’d say it remains to be seen what an American president can do when he has the mature support of his country. We use freedom of speech to make every president an enemy, but we rarely acknowledge that in free speech lies the power of making him our friend.

210 William February 20, 2012 at 3:52 am

A thought provoking post; some of the comments, less so.

211 Nelson Pecora February 23, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Definitely both of the Roosevelts.

I would contend that Obama definitely seemed a statesman in 2008. He generally follows the first three principles, though he definitely fails on the fourth. It’s unfortunate that he balked at political pressure from the right, even though he knows that appeasement isn’t getting him anywhere.

As for Ron Paul, it’s true that he fulfills some of those, though his oration could use work. He has also been backing away from some of his former opinions, which makes me worried that he’ll pull a McCain (essentially trying to change his position to be more in line with the Republican base).

Though I strongly disagree with Ron Paul’s politics, I’ll let that he’s currently comparable to 2008-Obama in his statesmanhood. We’ll see if that holds true.

Speaking of people I’m politically opposed to, I think Gary Johnson (and, to a lesser extent, Huntsman) are very strong on the first three values, and I have a lot of respect for them because of that.

212 Nick February 27, 2012 at 5:24 pm

Professor Fears is the man. He did a bunch of The Great Courses lectures, Life Lessons from the Great Books was well done. His lectures are fun, interesting, and inspiring.

213 Randy March 9, 2013 at 5:55 pm

A statesman’s moral compass points toward our Moral Lawgiver! President Ronald Reagan was possibly the best statesman in my lifetime. I love what he said. “If we ever forget we are a nation under God, then we will be a nation, gone under.”

214 Fred Wallis October 4, 2013 at 5:44 pm

I am contributing quite late, but as of October 4, 2013, there’s not a statesmen in Washington D.C. This government shut down is a disgraceful example of self serving politicians who care little for the welfare of the United States of America. The greatest problem of all seems to be that they will not be held accountable. The moral fiber of our once great nation has deteriorated beyond recognition. No more “all for one and one for all;” it has become “everything for me.”

215 Morris Starkey November 10, 2013 at 6:27 pm

It would seem that for the past several Presidents, there has been a tendency to play the politician to get elected and while serving in office, and then to seek statesman status in the post-Presidential years.

216 lwazi December 9, 2013 at 2:15 pm

There seems to be a eurocentric tendency in this article. I think a world view would be much more appropriate.

People like Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi of India, Thomas Sankara of Burkino Faso, Margaret Thatcher of Britain,
Kwame Nkruma of Ghana, Yasser Arafat of Palestine just to mention a few.

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