Michael Ledeen

Machiavelli on Modern Leadership

VTR Date: May 26, 1999

Guest: Ledeen, Michael


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Michael Ledeen
Title: Machiavelli On Modern Leadership
VTR: 5/26/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is historian Michael Ledeen who holds the distinguished Freedom Chair at Washington, DC’s highly regarded think tank, the American Enterprise Institute.

In fact I like to brag that Dr. Ledeen was my student almost 40 years ago, though, obviously he has been ridding himself of any Liberal residue ever since. So much for whatever influence this old Mr. Chips might have. Now, St. Martin’s Press has published his intriguing study of Machiavelli on Modern Leadership, and I want to ask my old friend just what it is about Machiavelli’s advice to the Prince that seems quite so compelling here five centuries later. Mike?

LEDEEN: Cause he raises all the basic questions.

HEFFNER: Like what?

LEDEEN: He asks, “is it better to be feared or loved?”

HEFFNER: And the answer?

LEDEEN: It’s safer to be feared. Either can work … they’ve both worked, on occasion. But it’s much safer to be feared. Because loved depends on a chain of affection that can be broken easily. But fear, which is based on dread of punishment, always works.

HEFFNER: Fear is the spur … not fame or love, but fear.

LEDEEN: Well, if you’re going to be a leader and you want to base your rule on either love or fear … and if you have to choose, which is generally the case, it’s safer to be … to have your leadership based on fear than on love. I give examples of both in Machiavelli on Modern Leadership. The great, relatively recent case of a leader who succeeded by being loved was George Washington. And that fabulous story of how he put down the Newburgh Rebellion when he took out his spectacles … no one had ever seen him wearing glasses before … cause he was so vain, and he shook his head and said, “well, gentlemen, I’ve gone gray in your service, and now I’m also going blind”. [Laughter] And there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and he took the day. But a lot of recent leaders who … poll driven leaders, who opt for love based on polls rather than fear based on strong leadership have gone straight to ruin. And I give three examples of them, which is Netanyahu, Gingrich and Beliscone (?), who were three great modern leaders who achieved great power and decided that they wanted people to love them, rather than just carving out their positions and marching forward, and they all went straight to ruin.

HEFFNER: And leaders who have succeeded on the basis of fear?

LEDEEN: Oh, countless. Clinton domestically, for one. Ask any Republican why they’re not more outspoken about Clinton and they’ll say they’re scared to death of him because he beats them every time and he pounds them and he ruins them and he destroys them and they’re afraid of him. So that’s the easy example to take. Most captains of industry are feared, both by their competition and by their employees. And most great athletic figures are feared. Michael Jordan was feared, for example. It wasn’t just that he was so talented, he was tough, he was a fighter, he was always winning and he found new ways to win on every occasion. His opponents were afraid of him.

HEFFNER: Well, now, let me, let me ask whether that means that you’re definition of fear is not precisely what the contemporary reader might assume it is. What do you mean by fear?

LEDEEN: I mean …

HEFFNER: The fear of what?

LEDEEN: … fear of punishment. Fear of punishment if you don’t follow the leader. Fear of some bad thing happening to you if you get out of line. And I think that’s what most contemporary readers mean.

HEFFNER: But bad, not necessarily in terms of injury?

LEDEEN: Well …

HEFFNER: Physical injury.

LEDEEN: Well … nowadays we don’t murder people, literally, we murder them by scandal or we murder them politically, or we murder their reputations.

HEFFNER: But of course when …

LEDEEN: But they’re just as dead. Yeah, when he wrote that people were “dead-dead”. But they’re just as dead politically when they’re killed in one of these situations as they were really back in Machiavelli’s day.

HEFFNER: So how does that translate for you into Ledeen’s advice to the Prince.

LEDEEN: This book is not “Ledeen’s Advice to the Prince”. This book grew out of one of the really nice institutions of the American Enterprise Institute which are our Friday brown bag lunches at which it’s generally … it’s mostly for the Interns. We have dozens of Interns, scores of Interns during the summer. And every Friday, one of the Scholars stands up and talks about work in progress, or “deep thoughts I have recently had”. And one Friday I was giving my “deep thoughts” of the day and I made some reference to something or other in the “Discourses”. And got a sea of blank faces. And I said, “what’s going on, how many of you have read the ‘Discourses’?” Nobody had read the “Discourses”. And I said, “how many of you have read ‘The Prince’ in the last few years” … one or two. So I said, “what’s going on?” You know, I knew the educational system was bad, but I didn’t think it had gone really, totally bad so I picked up “The Prince” and “Discourses” and started reading it again, and it had been a good fifteen or twenty years anyway. And, you know, I started looking at all the examples Machiavelli gives and I didn’t know more than about ten percent of them … all these old Romans and Spartans and Persians and whatnot, and I said, “you know it might be worthwhile to do an edition of Machiavelli with contemporary examples instead of all these old obscure examples that are constantly blocking people’s efforts to think through what he’s talking about”. So that’s what this is. This is, this is Machiavelli’s ideas with contemporary examples instead of the old examples that he gives that nobody knows about.

HEFFNER: Now wait a minute, I know you long enough and I think I know you well enough to make an assumption that I think is valid and that is that you find in Machiavelli something more than an artifact from the past that you are bringing up to date, or presenting to us again today. Are you just … funny word to use … are you just the educator here? The school master, or have you embraced something because there is a message for you that you want to convey to us.

LEDEEN: You know, it’s an interesting question. And recently my son had an experience in high school, where he met a famous person. And he went to class and the teacher jumped all over this famous person because she couldn’t stand the fact that, that my son had been in the presence of … so instead of saying “what a great thing it is for a high school student to be able to meet a famous and distinguished person and ask him questions and learn something from him”; and when he came home and told me about this, I reflected that when I went to college my favorite teacher at Pomona College was a person who one day in class had a girl ask him, “well, you know, what are you anyway? Are you a Democrat, are you a Republican … what is your religion and so forth”. And he said, “It’s none of your business. I’m your teacher. I’m teaching you history. What I think about these things is neither here nor there”. We have now gotten to the point where it’s almost impossible for anybody to believe that one would write a book just dealing with hands-down the single greatest political thinker in the history of the Western world. There’s not a major political thinker in the last five hundred years who has not been driven to deal with Machiavelli. What Machiavelli has to say is important. Some of it I agree with, some of it I don’t agree. But that’s neither here nor there. I was enraged at the discovery that contemporary students weren’t reading Machiavelli and I wanted to find a way for them to come into contact with Machiavelli’s ideas in a way that would be meaningful to them. And that’s what this book is. And the things I agree with and the things I don’t agree with are neither here nor there. I have plenty of opportunity to spout off myself.

HEFFNER: Now you’re being very polite. In the second part of your recent monologue you’re saying they’re neither here nor there. The teacher said … your teacher at Pomona said, “it’s none of your business” …

LEDEEN: Right.

HEFFNER: Now I’m asking the question because I think probably my viewers, not necessarily your readers, but my viewers would want to know to what degree does someone I invite to The Open Mind … to what degree does he find parallel thinking to his own in Machiavelli. And that’s not an unfair question. You can again say, “None of your god-damn business”. But it would be more illumining, it seems to me if you indicate … and you may reject that to the degree to which, when you talk about fear … Ledeen can embrace that notion, not just explicate it.

LEDEEN: Look, I think that his … that there are some basic rules that he lays out. Particularly when he talks about the consequences of corruption on a state and on its threat to liberty. And on its devastating effect on the ability … the inability of corrupt leaders to use military power correctly, for example. I think there’s no escape from those rules. Anymore than I think there’s any escape from his … from the horrible parts of Machiavelli, where he says, “Morality is a great thing. Christian morality is a wonderful thing. And we all ought to try to live that way. Except for leaders, because if you’re going to be a leader, then the odds are very long that you will find yourself one day in a situation where you will have to chose between being ethical and losing or entering into evil in order to win”. And he wants his leaders to be ready to enter into evil to win. And he says if you’re not prepared to do that, you’re in the wrong game, go do something else. And I think that’s right, too.

HEFFNER: That’s right. You’re being accurate.

LEDEEN: I think it’s true. Yeah.

HEFFNER: But you don’t mean it …

LEDEEN: I think that’s the way it is …

HEFFNER: … as right … as something you would embrace … would you tell your children that?

LEDEEN: I have told my children that. And I’ve told them that that’s one of the choices that they’re going to have to make in life. There’s …

HEFFNER: If you’re going to be a leader …

LEDEEN; … if you’re going to be a leader, then you’re going to face … these are the situations you’re going to have to face. You will face … unless you’re very, very lucky and luck … Machiavelli’s very big on luck. As you know, he was a card player. And …

HEFFNER: And you’re a bridge player.

LEDEEN: And I’m a bridge player. And a lot of modern Machiavellians are bridge players.

HEFFNER: Tell me.

LEDEEN: Gates. Buffet. There’s a famous bridge game called the “Tycoon’s Game” in which both Gates and Buffet play. They both play quite a bit of bridge. And Gates in particular is a guy who has always been very quick at changing his strategies and changing his operations when he sees that the world is changing. He’s a person who hasn’t so much created markets, as dominated them … once new markets were created. So, he, he fulfills a lot of Machiavelli’s advice about what kind of leader one ought to be and how leaders have to be ready to change at all costs and leaders always have to look for which way luck is flowing, because that’s central.

HEFFNER: Do you … do you think that this is a guide for … no, strike that. You say it’s a guide for modern leadership … they should know Machiavelli.

LEDEEN: Have to know … have to know.

HEFFNER: Have to?

LEDEEN: Have to know. I mean big leaders and big enterprises have to come to grips with these questions, whether they get it from Machiavelli, or whether they get it from their own experience, but these are, in fact, the questions that they deal with. These are the issues they face every day.

HEFFNER: Do you think most of the CEOs you know, most of the political leaders you know have embraced Machiavelli?

LEDEEN: Well, I don’t know what that means. You mean have they done evil things in order to win … have they …

HEFFNER: Have they … having accepted the mantle of leaders …

LEDEEN: Oh, yes.

HEFFNER: Having accepted that, have they followed Machiavelli’s advice?

LEDEEN: Not totally, but yes. Of course they have. Look, I interviewed lots of CEOs in the course of writing this book. And one of the ones I interviewed was Jerry Greenwald, who’s now retiring as CEO of United Airways … Airlines. And one of the questions … he, he is the business equivalent of the transition from dictatorship to democracy. He took a corporation that was centrally organized, and through classic pyramidal leadership, military leadership structure … and de-centralized it and gave lots more power and authority to people further down in the corporate structure. And one of the questions I asked him was … “having done all this”, and it was terribly difficult to change the culture, as Machiavelli explains, but once you did it, I said, “did you have … did you find yourself with more or less power as CEO?”. And he said, “Oh, I had much more power”. Once they had democraticized it, once they had given people more freedom and more responsibility, he was more powerful, not less.

HEFFNER: How so?

LEDEEN: Well, you know the answer to that. The American President has more power than most Kings. Because when you have the consensus of the people, when your power rests on consensus and on shared view of mission, that’s the greatest power you can have politically.

HEFFNER: That must be the origin of your interest in Tocqueville, too.

LEDEEN: Well, no … no, Tocqueville was St. Martin’s request. It’s not mine.

HEFFNER: Well, Mike, you know I have the feeling that somewhere around the … around this point I’ve got to ask you … I mentioned before … I asked you before about what do you tell your children? And you tell them they have to make a choice. If they make a choice, being a leader, whether we’re talking about the sixteenth century or the twenty-first century … do you think there’s any way out of the kind of trap that Machiavelli poses for us?

LEDEEN: It’s not a trap. It’s the way it is. That .. is .. the .. way .. it .. is.
HEFFNER: A choice. You have a choice.

LEDEEN: Well, yes. And there’s no escape from that because you will find yourself … look, Churchill at Coventry … and there’s some dispute about whether it happened. But that’s less important … Alright. The British have broken the German military code in the Second World War and discover that the Nazis are about to bomb Coventry. You’re the English Prime Minister, you know this bombing is coming … do you tell them? Do you move people out? Do you … anything you do to save life will give the show away, the Germans will know you’ve broken that code and might win the war having discovered that you had discovered their code. What do you do? Machiavelli says, and Churchill decided to enter into evil, to permit people to die that you could have saved, which is in violation of a moral absolute … failure to save life is a sin in every major religion … so you opt to do that for a greater good because there are things worse than losing life. Which is being dominated by your enemies and having freedom destroyed all together. But those are evil acts. Lying to your people is evil. Deceiving your people is evil. And yet, it’s things that leaders have to do from time to time. That’s the way it is.

HEFFNER: Religion plays a role … you keep coming back to Moses here.

LEDEEN: They do.

HEFFNER: Tell us about it.

LEDEEN: A good state rests on three pillars … good laws, good arms, good religion. Without any one of the three you’d collapse just like a stool with two legs. And Machiavelli’s greatest hero is Moses. And because Moses is the only person in history, he says, in one of his typical over-statements, he says Moses is the only person in history who created a new state and a new religion and talked directly to God.

HEFFNER: [Laughter] Why is that an over-statement?

LEDEEN: Well, Mohammed created a new state…

HEFFNER: Alright…

LEDEEN: …and new religions…

HEFFNER: Alright…

LEDEEN: …and talked directly to God. And you could make a case for Jesus, too. Right. So to claim Moses was the only person in history … anyway … Moses is his favorite hero. I mean he’s very much down on Jesus … much too gentle, peacenik-y for Machiavelli. So, and he says, and it’s probably true, that anybody who looks at Moses fairly would have to decide that in order to create a new state and a new religion, he had to kill thousands and thousands of people. And then there are these various stories … the Golden Calf, which everybody has forgotten, having seen the movie rather than read the book. Everybody thinks Moses comes down, sees the Golden Calf, throws a tantrum, smashes the tablets, and then after a while calms down, goes back up and gets new tablets. And then he moves on. But what actually happens is that he, after smashing the tablets, he says, “Okay, kill them all”. And the Levites come and kill all the people who were worshiping the Golden Calf. And Machiavelli says that’s necessary. There are times when you have to do these things. Moses did not want to lead that way. Moses wanted to lead by example. Moses wanted to be loved. Over and over and over again God comes and says to Moses, “Do this, do that”. And Moses says, “Come on, let me just show them the right way and they’ll do it”. And they don’t. And it’s one of the examples … I … Machiavelli is brilliant on transitions from dictatorship to democracy, which is one of our central problems today.

HEFFNER: Why do you say that? “One of our central problems”. What do you mean?

LEDEEN: Cause we have all these countries that used to be dictatorships which are now out from under, whether it’s the Soviet empire, or various countries in Africa, where old dictatorships are fading away. And they have to learn the rules of freedom; they have to learn how to be free. And …

HEFFNER: Mike, at the … here … because that’s certainly an area … here in the beginning of the twenty-first century … almost … how, how large does Machiavelli loom? We have your book, “Machiavelli On Modern Leadership”, we have your testimony that even among the very well educated Interns you referred to, there was no light when you mentioned Machiavelli, or you mentioned the Prince. Aside from the interest that your book will now generate, and it should … what do we know about Machiavelli, who reads him? Who talks about him? Who studies him? No one?

LEDEEN: Every, every major political thinker since the days of Machiavelli has been drawn to Machiavelli like a moth to the flame.

HEFFNER: In America?

LEDEEN: Everywhere. I mean my edition of The Prince has an introduction by Hegel …

HEFFNER: And mine by Christian Gauss.

LEDEEN: Right. I mean you can’t avoid it because Machiavelli lays out the basic issues of statecraft, of human nature, of the inter-relationship between religion, law and military power with a brutal clarity that no one before or since has ever accomplished. And you just … it’s just fascinating. And he does it … he’s got a terrific sense of humor, he’s a lot of fun. Believe me, I’ve spent two years with him now, just thinking through this book and I was very unhappy to finish it because every day was fascinating, every day was full of good wit, good humor, lots of fun. I mean the guy was, as between the two great categories of mankind, the “livers” and “let-livers”, he was a “liver” and sometimes a “high-liver” and he, he is really good company. And he’s not just a great thinker, he’s a big personality. So he’s fun to be with.

HEFFNER: And in the area from which he came … do you find that Machiavelli is embraced by the Italians, by the Florentines?

LEDEEN: Well, the main thing is that the, the terrible condition of corruption of Italy that he described in the early sixteenth century, has [laughter] survived him. I mean Italy is as bad today as it was then. So it hasn’t done any good. He wrote “The Prince”, not because he advises people to rule that way, he’s against that … he hates tyrants. But he sees the only hope for raising out of corruption a totally rotten society to be a temporary dictator who he hopes will be a good man willing to do bad things in order to accomplish a good objective. And so, that’s a kind of advertisement: “Wanted: good man prepared to do evil things to save this country’s soul”. That’s really the sub-title of “The Prince”, if I had to give it a sub-title. And he never found such a person. Normally you don’t. And so Italy hasn’t been rescued, it hasn’t been raised out of the mire.

HEFFNER: How do we take recent American leaders … FDR, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, Bill Clinton … others and rate them on the Machiavellian scale?

LEDEEN: Well, I mean the real Machiavellian scale is virtue. Which is, you know, fighting corruption, keeping people … Machiavelli is very much like the Founders in many ways. He’s got a Benjamin Franklin side to him about, you know, hard work and enterprise. And his description of a model society sounds very much like what Ben Franklin would have written. He’s certainly no Jeffersonian because he doesn’t believe in total anything … total liberty, total freedom, freedom of this, freedom of that. He always likes to have limits on things. He’s keenly aware of the danger of exceeding limits. But his main concern is that a leader be virtuous in the traditional sense of the word, that as he’s willing to put the public good in front of his private satisfaction.

HEFFNER: How do you account for this when Francis Clines in The New York Times reported on a, what he called a seminar in, in Washington about Machiavelli … how do you account for the fact that our mutual friend, Irving Kristal is quoted here … “Irving Kristal, the neo-Conservative patriarch smiled in cutting his friend off (Mr. Ledeen) at their polemical pass, ‘I’m all for letting a bit of Machiavelli enter our souls, but not too much’, Mr. Kristal said, conceding frustration as the mush of modern statesmanship, but accusing Mr. Ledeen of going overboard, ‘He’s much too nice to Machiavelli who was one of the most wicked men who ever lived’.”

LEDEEN: Yeah, well we have a disagreement. There’s a … shouldn’t surprise anybody. However, I’ve warned people not to take seriously The New York Times especially an article of which the lead paragraph is a lie. Which is what Francis X. Clines did in this phantasmagorical column of his.

HEFFNER: But Irving … Irving Kristal … not Francis Clines.

LEDEEN: Irving thinks Machiavelli … Irving buys into the basically the Leo Strauss view of Machiavelli, and that is Machiavelli was a very nasty person, and even when it looks like he’s being nice, he secretly being nasty, in fact even nastier than you could ever imagine. And I just don’t … I don’t agree with them.

HEFFNER: Well, what’s the basis for this disagreement?

LEDEEN: Well, they take “The Prince” … they say this … there’s really no big difference between “The Prince” and “The Discourses”, and that his willingness to do evil, and to say that the Prince always has to mis-lead, deceive, befuddle, kill, conspire in order to maintain his power and that those are the skills that a statesman needs to master, that that’s what Machiavelli wants and that’s what he thinks any leader, any time has to do. And I don’t agree with that. I think it’s quite clear from “The Discourses” and from the plays and from his letters and from just the whole … there’s quite a consistent Machiavelli who is basically a freedom lover and doesn’t want tyrants and says explicitly that tyranny is not only the worst form of government, but the most unstable form of government. So, even if you liked it you wouldn’t choose it because it’s going to pass away very quickly.

HEFFNER: “The Lion and The Fox”, tell us about that.

LEDEEN: Well, “The Lion and The Fox” just says any good leader has to have the skills of both the lion … has to combine the lion and the fox because … how does it go … the fox is too weak in order to be able to fight dangerous enemies and the lion is too stupid to be able to avoid traps. So you have to have the cunning of the fox to avoid traps and you have to have the courage and the power of the lion in order to destroy enemies. That’s the … the ideal leader will combine both.

HEFFNER: And in a half a minute? Which of the more modern, contemporary leaders in our country have combined them both?

LEDEEN: Well, globally we’ve had a whole generation of great leaders which run from Nelson Mandela to John Paul The Second, to the King of Spain to Ronald Reagan, to Margaret Thatcher … just globally we had a fabulous generation of great democratic leaders. And today it’s hard to find a one.

HEFFNER: Mike Ledeen, that’s fair enough, as a way of ending discussion of “Machiavelli On Modern Leadership”. I appreciate so much your joining me again today.

LEDEEN: Oh, it’s great fun.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.