Let’s Make a Deal — or Not

In Caesar's Ghost, Masters of Command by Barry StraussLeave a Comment

The news that negotiations were held again last night at the White House between President Obama, Speaker of the House Boehner, and other congressmen, that the negotiations failed, and that they will resume again on Monday morning – but only after the President holds a news conference – well, that was enough for me. There was, I knew, only one man to consult: Julius Caesar.

Past crises have allowed me to summon his spirit up from the deep and, this time again, he answered the call.

“Hail Caesar,” I said. “Have you been following the negotiations in Washington?”

“No. They bore me.”

“Why is that?”

“The negotiators lack authority. Real power lies in the hands of those who manipulate the congressmen behind the scenes. Then their creatures do their dirty work and the weak are terrified, the wavering are confirmed, and the majority see their right to make decisions snatched away.”

“Whoa!” I said, “that’s quite a scenario. What do you propose instead?”

I thought I saw Caesar grin. “Power belongs to those few men who are willing to put the public good first – even before their own life.”

“And who would those be?” I asked.

“Listen,” said Caesar.” “In the fifth year of my command in Gaul, I called a meeting with two of the greatest men in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. We met in the city of Luca in my province of Cisalpine Gaul [modern Lucca in Italy]. Before we met, the republic was roiled by bribery and violence. Then, Pompey, Crassus, and I agreed to give it peace and good government. We settled everything.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “At that conference at Luca in 56 B.C., the three of you renewed the First Triumvirate. It was a conspiracy to carve up the Roman state among three men and their followers.”

“No, it was the act of three Romans who were willing to stoop to anything for the cause of the republic.”

“You sacrificed public liberty for private power,” I said. “And in the end you lost both. The Triumvirate eventually collapsed and you crossed the Rubicon and started a Civil War.”

“They wanted it,” said Caesar simply. “I kept to my end of the bargain. It was my enemies who reneged and stirred up war.”

I paused. Then I asked: “Do you really think Obama and Boehner should divide the American state between the two of them?”

“They could win the war with a handshake,” said Caesar, “if they were real generals.”

At that point, the American political process, with all its obstacles and inefficiencies, began to look better and better. Let the members of Congress squabble and disagree, let the President speak, let the lobbyists pounce, let the public thunder, let the whole democratic mess take as much time as it needs to strike a deal – or to fail to do so. It beats what happened at Luca long ago.

Barry StraussLet’s Make a Deal — or Not

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