Roman history fascinates me like
few other things, especially the time in the 200 years prior to Caesar through
the early imperial period. Men like Marc Antony, Cicero, Julius and
Augustus Caesar, Nero, Sulla, and Marius grab hold of the imagination and don't
let go. But the name "Cato" evokes a special feeling for me.
Cato the Younger was a contemporary
of Caesar and Cicero, and a strict adherent to his core beliefs. He loved
Rome and wanted nothing more than to serve her.
As Senator, he never missed a session of the Senate and was publicly
critical of his fellow Senators who did. He believed in the uniqueness
and specialty of Rome, and fought every day to preserve it. In a time
when corruption and bribery were a way of life, he refused to run a dishonest
campaign when he ran for consul, and suffered defeat because of it.
Undeterred, he went back to the Senate and continued his political life.
When Caesar overstayed his term as governor of Gaul (with its immunity from
prosecution), Cato led the fight in the Senate to have him recalled to face
charges of corruption. He did this despite the fact that Caesar had many
powerful friends in Rome.
Caesar, of course, refused to
vacate his office and instead marched on Rome and declared war on the
Senate. After the Roman Civil War ended with Caesar as dictator, Cato
couldn't deal with it. His beloved Rome was gone forever, and his
remaining in the Senate would be tacit approval of Caesar's reign. So, he
attempted suicide by eviscerating himself. Taking a knife, he opened up
his guts. One of his slaves found him and fetched a doctor, who pushed
the intestines back in and sewed Cato back together. Cato would have none
of it, and soon thereafter removed the stitches and repeated the process, this
time causing his own death.
That single-minded adherence to his
beliefs, even when everyone else had long since compromised, is what makes Cato
appealing to me. But Cato the Younger wasn't the first or most famous
ideologue of his family. Cato the Elder, the Younger's grandfather, was
the first to carry the cognomen "Cato", which roughly translates into "wise."
During his youth, Cato lived on a
farm near a retired Roman general, whose feats were well-known to all in the
area. The young Cato was inspired by the man and wished to imitate
him. He entered the military and fought in the Second Punic War against
Carthage. Rome and Carthage were long and bitter rivals, perpetually
stuck in a Cold War that flared up periodically, and this was not the first or
last military engagement Romans and Carthage had with each other. He
later led an army against the Seleucid Empire - another nemesis -and decisively
drove them out of Greece, putting an end to their habit of harassing the Roman
His military bona fides
established, Cato went on to a political career. His love for Rome and
Roman ways showed through in everything he did. He is most famous for ending
virtually every speech on the Senate floor with the phrase "Carthage must be
destroyed." It didn't matter what the
subject was - grain supplies, taxes, contract law - his audience was reminded
that Carthage was Rome's mortal enemy and must be defeated. While Cato didn't live to see Carthage
destroyed, the Third Punic War, which was destined to end in Carthage's
eradication, began the year of his death in 149 BC, and he had to know that the
increasing hostilities between the two Mediterranean powers was about to come
to a head.
brought both Catos to my mind this week were recent statements by President
Obama. He proposed making insurance benefits
taxable last week, while I distinctly remember him slamming John McCain
offering up the same proposal during one of the presidential debates. Senator Obama decried the suggested tax,
stating that we had never resorted to such a measure in the past, and he wasn't
going to be the first to do so. Now, it
appears, he has changed his mind. Ditto
for the Congressional Democrats who were elected in November 2006 on the
platform of ending the war in Iraq. Here
we are two and a years later, and the war isn't over. They campaigned on issues that they believed
would get them elected, then changed their positions when it became clear that
following through on their promises would lead to problems that would cost them
re-election. This lack of conviction is
not limited to Democrats, obviously.
George H.W. Bush wanted us to read his lips on taxes, and we all know
what happened after the election. A few
years later, Newt Gingrich led a Republican takeover of Congress, promising to
balance the budget and establish term limits.
Neither ever happened.
President in recent memory who shared the Catos' single-minded determination to
stick to his convictions was Ronald Reagan when it came to dealing with the
Soviet Union. While his predecessors
shared the views that the Russians were never going away and the Iron Curtain
was a fact of life, Reagan knew that the Soviet Union must be destroyed. He can be forgiven all his other faults
because he inspired America to win the Cold War. People laughed at him when he challenged
Gorby to "tear down this wall" but he remained undeterred, and the world is
better off because of it.
Reagan, we have borne witness to President after President who has seemed to be
guided by nothing deeper than polling data.
Bush 41 couldn't decide whether he was conservative, moderate, or
liberal, and his tenure was largely forgettable as a result. Clinton wrote the template for others to
follow when he formulated his famous Triangulation policy, trying to straddle
the Left and the Right enough to remain popular. George W. Bush did have a strong conviction
to fight terrorism, but that only came about after the attacks of September 11,
and he was hardly a leader, standing alone until others followed when it came
to terror. EVERYBODY wanted to kill
Osama bin Laden. The only concrete thing
that Obama could promise us during the campaign was that he wasn't George Bush. Oh, and that he liked Change.
started to write this lamentation over our lack of strong, visionary leaders, I
started to dial it back a little bit.
After all, there really are some men with unwavering adherence to their
core beliefs - unfortunately, they are almost all crackpots. Dennis Kucinich comes to mind. Ron Paul, too, although I would put him more
in the mildly-nutty category. But is it
so wrong to have leaders who are followers first? Maybe the fact that we don't have a strong adversary
like an evil Soviet Empire or Carthage has left us bereft of the need to be led
to places we didn't know we could go.
Abraham Lincoln had preserving the Union to rally the nation
around. John Kennedy had the goal of
putting a man on the moon. We have the
50th year of our "health care crisis." That's not quite as compelling as barbarians at the gate, is it? We have no major enemies, nothing
catastrophic at our doorstep, threatening our very existence. Maybe we're just waiting for the right adversary
to come along. If given the choice
between squishy politicians because we're at peace and strong leaders because
we face destruction, I guess I'd rather have the former.