We deserve better. We should have demanded better. We should have had higher expectations from those who asked to be entrusted with crafting laws, with the public treasury, with judicial integrity, with command of the military.
Let's stop the bullcrap and be honest. I mean, SERIOUSLY honest. With an election looming in the next few days here in the United States, we have been incrementally conned and conditioned to have practically nobody to cast a vote for other than smooth-talkers and snake-oil salesmen. Incumbents and challengers ready willing and able to sell their soul for a little scrap of power... and fools that we are, we seem only too willing to give it to them. Sometimes I wonder if most of us like being treated with such contempt by those who allege to serve we the people.
In short: we have a surplus of politicians and too damned few statesmen.
What is a statesman? Someone, man or woman, who puts the good of those they serve above his or her own desires and ambitions. True statesmen are not politicians. Politicians care only for the trappings of office and don't care how they get it.
For the past several years I have had a rule by which I abide when it comes to casting a ballot. It is very simple: if a candidate's campaign creates or sanctions even one negative ad aimed at an opponent, I do not vote for that candidate. To me it indicates that the candidate is a politician, not a statesman. Statesmen will hold up under scrutiny per their own virtues. They don't want or even need to attack the virtues of others, even if said virtues are lacking.
Right now, my ballot for next week has some pretty wide open spaces.
How has it come to this? Could it be that... we as citizens have forgotten what a statesman is supposed to be? That we can no longer recognize the qualities that make them leaders and not mere "politicians"?
Maybe. In fact, I would dare say, unfortunately... yes, we have.
So if sincere and selfless and capable leadership cannot be found in our real world, perhaps a look toward movies, books and television is in order. Assembled here are the top ten men, women, and other beings from fiction who best exemplify the various aspects of statesmanship, along with the qualities for which they are best known.
Who are they? Find out after the jump!
10. Gandalf (the works of J.R.R. Tolkien)
Greatest Virtue: Humbleness
Wizard, wise counselor, warrior. For more than two thousand years Gandalf was all of those things and more as he labored in Middle-earth to counter the evil of Sauron. Of all the Istari sent from across the Sea, it was Gandalf who was most imbued with strength and ability. Yet in all those long centuries, he never yielded to the temptations of power. Gandalf’s prowess rested in his heart, not in his magic... though his greatest magic was to kindle and warm the hearts of the good to oppose tyranny and darkness. It was his role to inspire others, not to rule over them. That quality was never more demonstrated than when Gandalf resisted the lure of the One Ring: even refusing to take it when offered. Whereas his fellow wizard Saruman succumbed to lust for the One Ring, Gandalf remained steadfast and resolute in his determination to destroy it. He even died in the pursuit of his mission... only to be restored by the highest authority with even greater power! Gandalf could have set himself high over the lands and peoples of Middle-earth, and he knew it. But he could never betray his compassion and sympathy toward others. In the end however, Gandalf was acknowledged for his love and humility: the two traits that made him a true leader if not a lord. For the strength of his character in resisting the lure of power in all its forms, Gandalf handily opens up our list of Greatest Fictional Statesmen!
9. President Jack Ryan (several novels by Tom Clancy)
Greatest Virtue: Versatility
This poor guy just can’t seem to catch a break. First Ryan foiled terrorist plans to assassinate the Prince of England and his family (mostly by being in the wrong place at the wrong time). Then he wound up helping the captain and crew of the Russian missile submarine Red October defect to the West. Ryan followed that up by tangling with the Soviets again, getting involved with drug wars and even brokering peace in the Mid-East (following the nuking of Denver). Then he got appointed Vice-President of the United States as the result of a sex scandal… just before a hijacked airliner kamikazed the Capitol Building and along with it the President, most of Congress and the entire Supreme Court. Once again Jack Ryan went from being a scholar who wrote about history to being a scholar making history. But President Ryan was plenty up to the task, rebuilding the American government even while prosecuting a successful war against the newly established United Islamic Republic (which had resorted to unleashing the Ebola virus as biological warfare against America). THEN Ryan had to deal with an all-out war between China and Russia (whew!) before getting re-elected to the Presidency on his own. And all the while still being a husband and father. Now if all of that doesn’t scream out adaptability under fire, I don’t know what would! A devout Catholic who is fiercely loyal to country and family, Jack Ryan is the kind of leader we all wish we could have in the Oval Office.
8. Peter and Valentine Wiggin (Orson Scott Card's Ender Wiggin Saga)
Greatest Virtues: Foresight, Strategic Initiative, Thoughtful Persuasion
I’m counting them as a single unit, because there could not be one without the other. With younger brother Andrew “Ender” Wiggin high in orbit at the Battle School, Peter and Valentine down on Earth conjured up the online personas “Locke” and “Demosthenes”. And with their pseudonyms the elder Wiggins fulfilled every adolescent keyboard commando’s dream: conquering the world from an Internet chat room… literally. And I mean literally “literally”! But young though they were, Valentine and Peter used their awesome power for good, not evil. Peter had calculated that the world was headed straight into a new global war even as humanity was preparing to once again fight the alien Formics. Sharing his extrapolation with Valentine, brother and sister vowed to do something about it. Using the screen-name “Locke” (was Orson Scott Card prescient about the Internet or what?) Peter’s alter-ego provided some semblance of online sanity… while Valentine’s “Demosthenes” eloquently countered Locke with Peter’s real beliefs about government and conflict. It was a masterful performance of sibling bifurcation that quickly aroused the interest of millions across America and soon the world. When war for control of Earth did break out (right after the xenocide of the Formics) Peter put forth the Locke Proposal and compelled all sides to come to peace. Peter would rise to be the benevolent Hegemon of Earth and guide humanity for decades to come, while Valentine joined Ender in leading Earth’s first foray toward colonizing the stars. For their prescient collaboration in heading off mankind’s extinction, Peter and Valentine’s presence was required on this list.
7. Black Bolt (Marvel Comics)
Greatest Virtue: Self-Discipline
A political leader who can’t talk would ordinarily be a dream come true. But for Blackagar Boltagon - AKA Black Bolt – it comes out of deadly necessity. The king of the Inhumans is blessed... and cursed... with a voice that would level a mountain were he to ever speak aloud. Even the merest whisper escaping his lips can sink an aircraft carrier. Ironically that same destructive ability has indirectly led to Black Bolt being widely regarded as among the most capable leaders to ever come from the comic book medium. Obligated from birth to rein-in his horrific potential has instilled Black Bolt with the utmost sense of self-restraint and consideration toward others. Despite his vocal silence, Black Bolt has proven time and time again to be a selfless steward of his people. And when the need arises, he’s not above putting himself on the front line to protect them. Or to protect the entire Earth, including the same mankind that envies and fears the Inhuman race. And hey, it doesn’t hurt either that he has the loyalty of Lockjaw: the sweetest, most powerful dog in the entire cosmos!
6. Senator Jefferson Smith (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)
Greatest Virtue: Stubborn Idealism
The movie character so powerful, he honked off real-world politicians from Joseph Kennedy to Adolf Hitler! Jefferson Smith: the naïve, boyishly wholesome lad from small town America who inadvertently became a United States Senator. Little did Smith know that his appointment was all a sham: the only reason he was tapped for the job was the perception that he was gullible and would be easy to manipulate from behind the scenes. But Smith rapidly proved that he would not be controlled by anything but his own sense of conscience and earnest belief that government must serve the people, not the other way around. Initially shocked to find that he was set up to take the fall for a graft scheme, Jefferson Smith rebounded and demonstrated that he was quite the scrappy fighter against the machine of Washington politics. The climax of Smith’s resolve came in the form of a filibuster, during which he passionately railed against his fellow senators for their unbridled corruption, their negligence of the people they had sworn to serve and their abandonment of truth and honesty. After twenty-four nonstop hours Smith collapsed from exhaustion on the floor of the Senate. In the end, his uncompromised adherence to principle sees him through: exonerated and acclaimed. No wonder so many elected officials in Washington hated Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Come to think of it, they probably still do. In a sane world every person elected to House, Senate or President would get tied down in a movie theater with their eyes pried open like Alex’s in A Clockwork Orange and be forced to watch Frank Capra’s classic film. But then, that’s just me...
5. Optimus Prime (the Transformers franchise)
Greatest Virtues: Selflessness, Devotion To Liberty
“Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.” Such is the personal creed of the noble leader of the Autobots. To the mighty Optimus all people – be they organic or metal – must have the liberty to choose and pursue their own destiny. It is this absolute belief which for millennia has put Optimus Prime and his loyal followers in a worlds-spanning conflict with their Decepticon brethren. And it is a belief that Optimus Prime has demonstrated more than once that he is willing to lay his life down for. There have been many iterations of the Transformers since they hit the scene in 1984 but there has been one unassailable certainty throughout them all: that Optimus Prime will live – and will almost certainly die – for nothing less than the end of tyranny in all its forms.
4. Ambassador Delenn (Babylon 5)
Greatest Virtue: Sacrificial Love
...only his children.
Babylon 5 was a television series that produced a bevy of men/women/beings of statesman quality. The stoic G’Kar. The ever-cryptic Kosh. Even Londo Mollari, after all the mistakes leading to his great tragedy, showed in the end that he put the welfare of his people far above his own lamentable life. But if there was a heart and soul to this groundbreaking science-fiction drama, it must reside in Delenn, no question about it. Delenn was many things: humble, wise, appreciative of life and all its quirks (especially humor), contemplative, as quick in war as she was in mercy… she was a complex woman (even for a Minbari) with a myriad of virtues. But her greatest quality was the one that came into brutal focus during the episode “Comes the Inquisitor”: her capacity to die, alone and forgotten, unremembered in songs or statues or names of great cities. Would she be able to perish in the dark, unloved and abandoned, with none to witness her sacrifice for righteous cause? Could she fulfill the terrible tasks ahead of her without desire for everlasting fame and glory? In short: could she live with being obscure and unimportant? Delenn stymied the sadistic Sebastian with her unflinching willingness to die for the sake of all. A trait that Sebastian acknowledged with a passage of scripture: “No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his brother.” And when the Shadow War erupted the following year on through the civil war of her homeworld, Delenn was indeed the right person “in the right place, at the right time.”
To lead and serve without want for acclaim or monument: now that is true statesmanship.
To lead and serve without want for acclaim or monument: now that is true statesmanship.
3. General Aleksandr Kerensky (the BattleTech saga)
Greatest Virtue: Honor Before Ambition
For more than two hundred years humanity was united under the banner of the Star League. It was an era of unparalleled peace and prosperity: a true golden age for all mankind. But even among the stars, utopia was impossible. Decades of political and cultural decline came to a head just after Christmas 2766, when Stefan Amaris culminated his years-long plot to seize power by assassinating Richard Cameron, the young First Lord of the Star League. General Aleksandr Kerensky, the beloved commanding officer of the Star League Defense Force, immediately launched an offensive against Amaris the Usurper and the Rim Worlds Republic. Eleven years and billions of deaths later, Kerensky’s forces liberated Earth and put an end to the Amaris regime. But far worse was yet to come: without a hereditary First Lord, the five House Lords governing the realms of the Inner Sphere feuded for the seat of ultimate human power. Kerensky could have easily used the strength of the Star League military to take total control of the Inner Sphere, and the House Lords knew it. But the great man could not bear to see those who he had long served destroy each other. Embittered by man’s inhumanity to man and unwilling to let his army be used by any side to inflict even greater and more terrible destruction across the Star League, General Kerensky departed the Inner Sphere. Almost the entire Star League Defense Force went into exile with him. And so like Cincinnatus of ancient Rome, Kerensky gave up his absolute power and disappeared into history. He was never again seen in the Inner Sphere.
(Of course, there is the little matter of what came of those who undertook the Exodus with Kerensky, but that’s another story...)
2. President Laura Roslin (Battlestar Galactica)
Greatest Virtue: Personal Fortitude
Wow. Where to start? Laura Roslin had to care for her dying mother, then lost her father and sister to a drunk driver. A citizen of Caprica, she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer... on the same day that the Cylons attacked and everything went straight to Hell. With the entire Colonial leadership wiped out in the attack, Roslin – by virtue of being Secretary of Education and being the forty-third official in line of succession – was hastily sworn in as the new President of the Twelve Colonies. She quickly rallied the survivors around the Galactica and the rag-tag fleet began its desperate quest for the long-fabled planet known as Earth. During the long years of wandering, President Roslin was beset by Cylons bent on genocide, political intrigues and betrayals, and the disease torturing her body. Roslin weathered it all, maintaining all-too-rare dignity and poise for the sake of those she had been thrust into service toward. Roslin endured hopelessness so that her people might have hope. In the end she led the refugees of the Colonies to Earth, but it was not meant for her to enter into it. Roslin died as William Adama flew her across the plains of Africa. Her final words: “So much... life.”
And that, she had.
1. Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)
Greatest Virtue: All Of The Above And So Much More
The person who takes the top spot on the list of Ten Greatest Fictional Statesmen had no superhuman abilities, no claim of magnificent strength, no technology beyond a telephone.
He was not the conqueror of vast empires. He was never a general of armies. He was not a president or a senator. He never rose any higher in elected office than the state legislature.
But beyond all doubt, Atticus Finch is the finest example of leadership and service to others to be found across the entire massive scope of fictional storytelling. If there is anyone… ANY one… better, I cannot possibly conceive of who that might be.
Atticus Finch: a simple lawyer and single father of two in rural Maycomb County. Doing the jobs no one else is willing to do and rarely getting thanked for it, but is always the one that people come to first. Possessing great skill but also the humility to never boast of it. An honest man who looks upon all others as deserving of respect and dignity.
It was not easy. Atticus knew it. He suffered ridicule and insult for his defending Tom Robinson in court. Atticus knew that the trial was a lost cause. But he never backed down, never compromised. He took the blows and held his head high.
There are so many quotes of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird that one could use to exemplify the strength of his character. But in our own time of shallow ethics and moral vacuum among the highest offices of the land, this is the one that stands to be appreciated the most:
"This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience. Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man."
"Atticus, you must be wrong..."
"Well, most folks seem to think they're right and you're wrong..."
"They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions," said Atticus, "but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."
One could write entire volumes about Atticus Finch. About how he is the avatar of everything that we should look for in leadership. I won’t even attempt to try. Except to note that Atticus Finch, for all his virtue and ability and humbleness and moral fiber, was not these things for sake of pomp or public gratitude. It didn’t matter to him what the world thought of him...
...only his children.
Atticus Finch, ladies and gentlemen. The epitome of all the qualities that any wise and considerate people must seek in those they choose to turn toward for guidance and leadership within this temporal realm.