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Leaving the Stage

July 11

Joe Pitts

“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.” — William Shakespeare

President Biden’s poor debate performance coupled with his clearly declining mental faculties have begged the question of whether or not he is up to the task of running for a second term. Some have floated the possibility of his resignation before the end of his first tour of duty in January 2025. But Joe has held on tight, insisting that he is fit for the moment; that he remains the best bet Democrats have to defeat Donald Trump.

Despite his reassurances, Democratic elected officials, donors, and party apparatchiks are pushing harder than ever for Biden to step aside. For days following the debate, the New York Times opinion section was chock full of columnists and even the Editorial Board itself calling on Biden to step down for the good of the nation. The heiress of the Disney fortune has pledged to halt all giving for Democrats until Biden is gone. He is taking flak from all sides (except from the Trump campaign, which surely prefers Biden to stay in the race, given recent polling), and he is simply not budging.

Ultimately, the decision to step aside is Biden’s to make. But it would be worthwhile for him and his family—not to mention future leaders who are watching this saga unfold—to take a step back and think through what good leadership, let alone statesmanship, requires of men and women who by fortune or fate find themselves in such exalted stations.

Equally as important as steady leadership during one’s time in the limelight is preparation for what happens after you exit the stage. The play will go on, no matter one’s most sincere efforts at stopping it in its tracks. Once the reality of human finitude is impressed upon a leader’s mind, they should then ask themselves the question: “What legacy should I impress on the next act?”

A brief exploration of statesmanship and what it requires leads me to suggest that Biden step down for the good of our country.

Statesmanship’s precipitous decline

“Great man” theories of history which posit the centrality of particular historical leaders in shaping events have given way to a distinct historicism, at least within the academy. No longer does a serious academic study a supposedly great man or great woman to sketch out the essence of their soul and their impact on the world. Instead, the trained modern researcher seeks to understand all past events and historical currents as products of impersonal variables beyond the human will. Plutarch rots and Hegel triumphs.

In this view, America’s founding, and the drafting and implementation of the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution, were not contingent events that came into being—even partially—as a result of the careful exertion of particular exalted people’s wills, but the inevitable result of geography, economic conditions, and historical trends. The famed debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas are not indicative of serious ideological disagreements, but “sound and fury, signifying nothing…,” or at least reflective of nothing more than these men’s base material and political motives. 

Just as Newtonian science introduced an atomic understanding to the physical sciences, many moderns reduce the complexity of the human person and their potential to shape historical currents to the litany of inhuman variables that might have led people to make pivotal decisions. History, and the potential for free human action, are reduced to an increasingly rigid determinism. This understanding of history has, perhaps unbeknownst to its champions, deprived people of every sort—from the potential statesman to the local librarian—of a belief in their own agency. The human actor is replaced by the human acted-upon. And we are told that this is “enlightened” and “liberating”!

Our narrow modern perspective has simultaneously deprived liberal citizens of their own perceived capacity for purposive action, and potential statesmen of fertile soil to grow. 

“We have lost the conviction that ideas require men to bring them to earth,” wrote Richard Brookhiser, “and that great statesmen must be great men.” Embracing an outlook that is “simultaneously too ethereal and too down-to-earth,” we believe that abstract ideas can direct history, but also that “historical figures, who floated like chips in the intellectual backwash, attached themselves to [causes] for trivial motives…” If we still believe in statesmen, they are gods who descend from on-high to impose their will on an unwilling world. No wonder we have lost faith in our capability to become them, or even to approximate them. But statesmen are made of flesh and blood.

They have lived, do live, and will live in the context of their time. They have families, and lives, and flaws. And in spite of their mere humanity, they are capable of comprehending the present with such clarity that they are able to see beyond it.

Recent events have highlighted how worthwhile a revival of the study of statesmanship could be. We ought to analyze Biden’s present predicament through this lens, looking back to previous examples of successful and failed statesmanship as a guide. The lessons gained from a study of statesmanship are valuable for even the least statesmanlike of officeholders. Paltry leaders would do well to learn from their betters.

Pericles and Washington

The Athenian general Pericles, most famous for his funeral oration, is popularly hailed as one of history’s great statesmen. A visionary, the general devised an “aircraft carrier” strategy to protect and expand a growing Athenian empire. Recognizing that ancient Athens’ great power lay in its navy, Pericles gathered all his people in from the country and behind the city walls, where he was confident they could weather a siege. He then mobilized the navy: they could suppress rebellions and expand Athenian power by sea rather than by land. So long as the city walls stood, all who lived within the walls were safe from siege, even if the countryside burned.

As Thucydides—an historian to be sure, but likely something more—recorded, Pericles met his fate by succumbing to the plague; a plague which likely spread even more quickly because of the Athenians having been gathered within the confines of the city walls. Ironically, modern scientific analysis suggests that the plague first arrived in Athens through Piraeus, the city’s port. This was a threat that Pericles could not foresee. Strangely, his sudden death only warrants a single line in the whole of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Despite all his cunning, despite all his striving, despite all his great deeds, Pericles died quickly, too quickly, confined within the walls of the city he sought to redeem.

George Washington did not style his own life after that of Pericles. Like the Athenian, Washington sought to steward a commercial republic toward greatness, harnessing its great kinetic energy to the benefit of his people. But unlike Pericles, Washington had a deeper and more thoughtful concern for posterity; for what the precedents he set may reap years after he shuffled off this mortal coil. He understood that man possessed great powers, but that these powers existed within what Alexis de Tocqueville described as a fatal circle: “Providence has not created mankind entirely independent or entirely free. It is true that around every man a fatal circle is traced beyond which he cannot pass, but within the wide verge of that circle he is powerful and free…” Washington knew that he would not live forever. Grand ambition, if it is to be more than a testament to one man’s vainglory, must be governed by prudence.

Washington instead chose Cincinnatus, a Roman general, as his lodestar. This great Roman was content to live on his farm in peace, but was called by his people to save Rome. Within 16 days he had fully seized power of the state, and nothing prevented him from declaring himself king and indulging the spoils of conquest. But he instead relinquished all power and returned to his farm. The figure of Cincinnatus loomed large over Washington’s life, evidenced by his decision to choose neither to declare himself king nor serve as president longer than two terms.

We remember Washington today as a great man because he sacrificed immediate personal gain for the sake of republican government. Had he secured all the power he could have amassed during his twilight years to the detriment of our proud tradition of self government, we may have remembered him as a “towering genius,” but not as “our WASHINGTON.”

If we can apply one lesson from this brief study to our present moment, it is that statesmen know when to say their lines—and when to exit stage left.

Joe Pitts is a public policy professional working in Washington, D.C. He is a native Arizonan.


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