The Prince, Revisited
Back when I was an undergraduate student at Arizona State, I was introduced to Machiavelli's "The Prince." The book was ostensibly a letter of instruction from a Karl Rove/James Carville type of dude to a Prince who was about to ascend to power. It is a cynical work, full of all sorts of useful advice ("It is better to be loved than hated, but it is even better to be feared") and its primary thesis can be distilled down into this: "The ends justify the means."
I was reminded recently of this book by the troubles of a number of politicians, both at the state and federal levels. Several have run afoul of the law or have fallen out of favor with the public, and their troubles could easily have been avoided had they stuck to the principles outlined by Machiavelli. Since a 500 year old Italian tome might be a little inaccessible to our modern public servants, I thought I would help our scandal-plagued leaders out by repackaging and updating the book's tips, and fill in some of the blanks that Machiavelli could not have imagined when he wrote the original.
Tip #1: Remember the Red Uniform
Nearly every episode of Star Trek saw members of the crew beaming down to some hostile planet for an away mission. Some Random Dude in a Red Uniform always accompanied the main characters, and the Random Dude in a Red Uniform always got munched by whatever hostile monster/alien/disease inhabited the planet. But it served a purpose: he died so that the important characters might live.
Similarly, when things get hot and you start taking a lot of flak for whatever bad decision you made, crack open a package of Random Dude in a Red Uniform and feed him to the hostile alien life form, which, in your case would be the press. Fire one of your subordinates and place 100% of the blame for your stupid actions on this one guy. He must die so that you may live. If you make another bad decision, the solution is simple. Fire another subordinate, and another, and another until all the stench of your bad judgement is completely off you. The beauty of this plan is that there is no shortage of people lining up to fill the Red Uniform!
Tip #2: It's not you - it's them
If you propose some sort of sweeping, possibly over-reaching plan (like, say, having the government taking over the health care system) and you see your popularity plummet and your proposal universally-scorned, remember this: it's only because other people don't listen. They don't see how smart you are and how great your plan is. Of course, you can't say that publicly. You have to say "I have not effectively communicated my message." If, after re-packaging and re-communicating your message (we in the political business call it "polishing the turd") you still find your approval ratings in the toilet, see Tip #1, and start lining up the Random Dudes in Red Uniforms.
Tip 3: Make it worth the risk
Last week, New York governor David Paterson was accused of receiving World Series tickets and not paying for them. That could be considered a quid pro quo sort of thing and apparently is against some sort of ethical standards. What makes this all puzzling is that Governor Paterson is blind - as in "I can't see. What's going on with the game? Why am I not sitting in front of a TV or radio listening to the game? " Why risk all the trouble coming your way for something you really can't use? Pretty lame, and certainly not worth risking your political office over.
But, sadly, it was not the first time a leader has risked so much for so little. We all remember Bubba, right? Bill Clinton risked his marriage, his office, his reputation, and his future to have a fling with Monica Lewinski. And Jennifer Flowers. And Paula Jones. James Carville once famously said "If you wave a hundred dollar bill around a trailer park, there's no telling what you're gonna get." Yes there is: you're gonna get a date for Bill Clinton. Plus about $80 in change.
"But, Fat Kid," you might protest, "John Kennedy had all sorts of affairs and he was still a great President!" But the difference is JFK got it. He understood that if you are going to risk it humiliating yourself in front of the whole world, you need to aim high: Marilyn Monroe. If you need to have someone explain to you the difference between Marilyn and Monica, you really should not be President.