The Politician and the Statesman

There is an enormous difference between a politician and a statesman and we would do well to reflect upon it. Their personas and agendas are as distinct as their political philosophies. And while my intention here is to focus on how these differences play out on the national/international scene, it should be clear that such personality types exist and operate on the local/communal level as well. It should also be understood that in presenting this leadership typology, I am not so na´ve as to think that such portrayals exist in their pure forms. Clearly, a given leader may combine and exhibit attributes of each. However, viewed in sum, there will invariably emerge a person whose leadership qualities will define him as either politician or statesman.

Let us begin with the politician. In dealing with matters of State, such an individual is largely driven by purely practical considerations with an eye to ultimately bring about some measure of consensus among the conflicting and partisan points of view. The only "red line" for a politician is his own political survival and perhaps that of his party. While other considerations may influence policy decisions from time to time, the central mindset of the politician is to negotiate "the deal," to finalize a settlement. While convinced that he is acting on behalf of the people, the politician—at bottom—is egocentric and thus operates with a narrow and constricted vision. His motto is often, "whatever it takes." And precisely for this reason, the politician is prone to scandalous behavior at times bordering on the criminal. The agenda of the politician is frequently hidden. It is fueled and defined by self-interest and often heavily indebted to constituencies whose demands are sometimes not in the best interests of the Nation. True, the politician is a leader but often a leader by default and always by dint of Machiavellian stratagems. As such, his leadership is fundamentally flawed and even dangerous to the security of the Nation. 

Not so the statesman. A statesman approaches issues of national concern entirely differently. While also desirous of negotiating agreements and securing the peace, the statesman is driven by considerations other than the purely pragmatic. What emboldens the statesman are those ideals of purpose that clearly transcend the practical. They comprise the principles, values, and traditions that define both the statesman and his Nation, beliefs that will not be compromised or prostituted. A statesman, with vision that sees quite beyond the present moment, is therefore prepared to sacrifice in order to preserve such ideals. He knows that surrendering to the political pressures and expediencies, while popular in the short term, can prove fatal to the long term security of the Nation. His political agenda, while clever and wise, is equally clear, unambiguous, and unbeholden to anyone. The statesman is a dignified and noble leader. He is both modest in his needs and humble in his willingness to embrace the wisdom of others; his ethical reputation is impeccable. He does not yield to personal or national temptations but rather steers a courageous course unapologetically consistent with those ideals and principles that define the singularity of the country he cherishes and honors.

It should be understood that, at times, it might very well be difficult to distinguish between these two types of stewardship. Outwardly, their modi vivendi might be similar. There are circumstances, however, in which these differences become quite evident. And it is important to attend to these circumstances to better identify with whom we are in fact dealing.

Often, in a state of national emergency, with tensions running high and the stakes consequential and grave, the politician and statesman part company; the reactions of each are quite telling. The statesman articulates a policy true to his ideals and principles and remains resolute and steadfast in its implementation. Precisely because of the integrity and ethics that define who he is, and precisely because he is genuinely perceived to be inspired by grand and noble purposes, he is able to rally the nation to his cause. The politician, however, reacts very differently. He first allows the pressures of the crisis to undermine whatever might have been his original course of action. He then searches for an expedient solution to the urgency, guided solely by his desire to "clinch a deal," to negotiate a settlement that insures his political incumbency as well as that of his party. In the end, though, such maneuvering and compromising often forces him to act against the best long term interests of his country.

There is another, more frequently common, non-crisis setting in which these differences are also apparent. They emerge when the politician and statesman see their respective visions and plans frustrated; when disappointment and failure mock the efforts of both. The statesman accepts defeat with dignity and waits for another day to advance his position with renewed vigor and determination. The politician, however, responds otherwise. With visceral but restrained anger, he becomes bitter and vindictive. He chooses to ignore ethical considerations and is sorely tempted to resort to unprincipled and devious methods to win the day, even at the expense of other declared loyalties and avowed commitments.

In reflecting upon these leadership types, it should be clear that the lasting future of any nation rests upon whether the people select one or the other. Indeed, as the rabbinic adage goes: a people deserve the leadership they choose. As such, I would fervently hope that should such a statesman arise in Israel, the people would overwhelmingly trust, admire and endorse such leadership. I'd like to believe that our people, solidly grounded in a moral/religious bedrock, would pledge their support to such a charismatic statesman and act heroically to do what is right in the eyes of G-d and man.

Rabbi Jeffrey Bienenfeld       June 2007