(Originally published Feb. 14, 2013, in Dilema Veche, here.)
A long time ago, one of my best friends went to prison. He was caught doing something illegal involving money and politics in the state of Maryland. Of course, that was normal back then. Just take a look at the history of former Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was one of his friends.
Normal or not, my friend was a lawyer and probably would have been a US Congressman if not for that little problem. He lost his law license (temporarily, it turned out, thanks to a friendly governor) and he never again was welcome in public politics.
By the time I met him, it was 20 years later. We would sit for hours talking about business, politics, children, and life. And the one thing he repeated over and over was that he hoped when he died, his obituary would not start with the fact that he had once been in prison. It was not the way he wanted to be remembered, by his family, by his friends. It was, in short, not the legacy he wanted to leave after living a long, good life.
Because whether or not we like to think of the future, it comes for us all. And then we depart. And all that we leave is our legacy behind.
Why do I think about this? Because as we start a new year (always a good time to reflect), you will hear the issue of legacy discussed a lot as President Obama begins his next term. (Why do you think he gave the State of the Union on Lincoln’s birthday? It was not to help the movie – though that is where most of us learn our history.)
No, it’s because in the US, posterity matters, legacy matters, our history matters. And as everyone knows, in America, a president’s first term gives him four years to get reelected; his second term gives him four years to write history.
This predictable manipulation of political timing is enough to make anyone cynical. And I’ve been among them. I’ve heard too many words to believe them all. Too many grand phrases. Too many empty promises. Too many “hifalutin” dreams. Indeed, it eventually makes one wish they would all go away.
Until, that is, you move to Romania – and then something strange happens. You no longer hear them. There are no words with a mission. There’s no statement of vision. In fact, sometimes it seems, few politicians can even think beyond dinner.
And suddenly, you miss it. You miss being bored by all those fatuous phrases. You miss rolling your eyes to cliches and canned speeches. You miss making fun of their vainglorious words.
Instead, you surprisingly wish the politicians would speak them. You wonder why no one even pretends that they care. Because you begin, unexpectedly, to see those words serve a purpose. They speak a country’s ideals and what good men represent. And even if spoken with a disingenuous sneer, they at least lay a path for the genuine to follow.
Because like a business or a life, each nation needs a mission, a sense that there’s direction to its future and a purpose for its being. Without it, it just is. Empty and foolish, with no reason to be.
You would think, in this age, even politicians would know this. It is only in pursuit of a mission that the finest legacies are set. For a man’s legacy is built from essentially two things: his vision and his flaws, and whichever is stronger will determine his fate.
Unfortunately, by the time most of us realize that we care about our legacy, it’s usually too late (unless you’re Ebenezer Scrooge). For most of us, by then, we’re too old to change much. Our own headlines are written.
As parents, we are too old to raise our children again (which is why, I suppose, grandchildren are so welcome – it gives us a chance to try it again).
As businessmen, we don’t stop until we retire, and only then we have time to reflect on what we’ve done. (Just ask John Reed, who now belatedly laments the Citicorp he created. Where was he, we all wonder, when we warned him of his folly, except blinded by hubris and feeding on ego?)
Yes, most of us get it wrong. But at least with children and businesses, we know we are making something that will be left to the world.
For politicians, however, it’s never so clear and not that concrete. Politicians, as we know, don’t actually make anything (unless, that is, they are making things worse.) Their impact comes slowly and builds over time. They battle daily for power. And for public opinion. And for revenge. And for maintaining position. Each fight is a war that just leads to the next and by the time that they win, their legacy is set. There’s no time for reflection. They’re already done. Because to paraphrase someone, legacy is what happens while you’re too busy elsewhere trying to crush your opponent.
How sad that is. Because most certainly, the small battles of today will be forgotten tomorrow. The fights of this year might survive as a sentence when history is written, but none of them are likely to have any more importance than the outcome of this year’s “Romania’s Got Talent.”
No, the sad fact is that the more politicians believe they are important, the more they believe that anything they do is important. And don’t look to the media here for any help. They are nothing more than enablers, mostly bought and paid for, supporting politicians in their small fantasies of power.
Because small things are precisely what they are. Small. They are not, as the politicians on TV would have you believe, victories that are worthy of being celebrated and cheered.
Indeed, it would be best to remember what Shakespeare’s Duke of Suffolk once said: “Small things make base men proud.” So ask yourself, if you’re proud of winning your very small battles, what does that say about the character you have?
Perhaps this is why monarchies are so attractive – at least, in theoretical form. They don’t need to win small battles to know they’re important. And they are born into a legacy midway, tethered to the future in much the same way that we are tied to the past. They learn to judge all their actions with history in mind.
And while the US does not have a monarchy, it does have a president, which in many ways can look like much the same thing. The “imperial presidency,” the great fear of our founders, seems to have taken a very firm hold. Perhaps that is why, though I cannot honestly say that politicians in the US are any better than here, they do talk more about the country they are leaving to their children. Count the times they ask voters to “look to the future.” They have a sense they make history no matter what they might do. And they know if they’re good, their name will be on schools.. On bridges. On towns. And maybe even on a movie. Yes, most of what’s said is just rhetoric, filled with sophistry and deception, but at least they say it because they know it’s important.
So why, I keep wondering, here in Romania, do I hear no grandiloquent speeches? No inspired ideas? No attempts at a greatness? Nothing that suggests politicians care anything past the end of the year, or sometimes even past the middle of tomorrow?
It’s still too early, you say? It’s only been 20 or so years? It’s too soon after Ceausescu? How often I have heard that, about politics, about business, about journalism. And to everyone I ask: how long does it take? How many years do you need? 25? 30? Just tell us. We’ll wait. Maybe we’ll leave and come back when you’re ready.
But the real answer, it seems, is what I’d also like to tell your movie directors. The time is right now. It is time to grow up. The revolution is over. Your ossified past (including those who helped build it) is about to die off. Although it needs help, your government works. You’re in the EU. You survived a recession. Now, it’s time to move on. Give up your adolescence and think of the future.
I’m not talking about making thin and pale pleas such as those made recently in Iasi by Prime Minister Victor Ponta: “to think not only about what country we inherited, but also about what country we want to build now and to leave to the ones who will come after us” (although that’s a start). And I’m certainly not talking about the communist preference for grand propaganda with sweeping platitudes about the greatness of a nation and the equality of all workers.
No. I’m speaking of words from serious men who know that public service requires sacrifice and that proud legacies are built on a genuine integrity to oneself and to the needs of a people.
Instead, what do we see? Politicians too stuck in petty, gang-style political games that truly go nowhere. They win for a day and then lose the next. They have internal squabbles and external battles that circle and circle. And despite all the energy and intelligent minds, the country moves nowhere – and their legacies are set.
Perhaps politicians here are scared because the power shifts so quickly that they only have a short period of time to get anything done. Of course, the irony is that it is they who have created this game of instability, this uncertainty that they will continue in power. So they hurry and push. But there is no rushing a legacy unless you want to be remembered as impetuous and shallow.
Which is precisely, to date, what we have seen. And what has that produced? So far the legacies I see (and the way their headlines are most likely to read) include a man who called in the miners to kill some young students, the first Prime Minister to be sentenced to prison, a President who mysteriously bought too many houses, and a Prime Minister who lied and cheated on his CV and thesis.
Is that the legacy they want to leave to their children? To have them grow up and also be thugs? Does temporary power so distort and corrupt that it appears all they can do is leave some money and houses to their wife and their kids? While they lie on their deathbeds, will they lament and regret the fact that they once had a chance to do something great and to leave behind something real?
And will they, God forbid, like my friend sadly discovered, hope that much of their life will be someday forgotten?