Pivoting

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

“Pivot” is the buzzword of the season among political journalists. They report, for instance, that President Obama is “pivoting” to the issue of jobs after the federal debt ceiling debate. Earlier this year they said that Governor Romney was trying to “pivot” from playing defense about his healthcare law in Massachusetts to going on the attack on Obamacare. And we heard about “pivoting” in 2008 too, when, for example, Senator McCain was urged by supporters to “pivot” from foreign policy – his strong suit – to his less-favored subject, domestic policy.

A polite word for “pivoting” is “flexibility.” Less polite terms, like “maneuvering,” “salesmanship,” “huckstering,” and “flim-flam,” also come to mind.

It reminds me that few people in history have “pivoted” as successfully as Julius Caesar. He went from a first-rate career as a politician to a first-rate career as a general. If anyone was an expert on pivoting, it was Caesar. And so, I once again called on his shade.

Hail, Great Caesar’s Ghost! Could you enlighten us on how a politician pivots from one subject to the next – from war to domestic politics, for instance.

Nothing could be further from Caesar than dissembling.

But, Caesar, didn’t you sometimes present a different face to different people?

That is not pivoting but leadership.

All right, then: you knew how to lead…flexibly. I’m thinking, for instance, of your letters to Cicero.

Indeed. After crossing the Rubicon with my soldiers in 49 B.C. I made war on Pompey in southern Italy. At the same time, I sent honeyed words to Cicero. I “begged” Cicero to see me when I eventually came “toward Rome.” Note the “toward” instead of “to” – it was impolite for a general to speak of entering the city with an armed force. I told him that I was desperate to see him, and that I counted on his good will and good counsel.

But you addressed the Roman people differently. You didn’t woo them – you wowed them. Take Caesar’s Gallic War, the best campaign autobiography in history.

Caesar doesn’t “wow.” He merely states the truth.

I’m thinking of your description of the Battle of the Savis in 57 B.C., when a Gallic army caught the legions by surprise. The unprepared Romans struggled to defend themselves until you picked up a shield and strode to the front lines. The way you tell it, the mere sight of the commander – the conspectus imperatoris – gave the men hope and restored their courage.

I was so stirred by what people said afterwards that I could not omit writing about it. For in the end, what is more suitable to a man of rank and virtue than to recount his great deeds?

But there is a huge gap between your solicitude toward Cicero in a private letter and your self-promotion in a book written for the public. Isn’t this a case of pivoting?

You will find nothing better or safer than this course of action: When you court one of the “best men,” as some elites style themselves, your message should be: EVERYTHING IS ABOUT HIM. But when you court the people, make your message: EVERYTHING IS ABOUT ME. The great need flattery but the people are drawn to strength. So, in political campaigns as in war, nice guys finish last.

That’s a very depressing thought for the day.

Fire is not for children.

Barry StraussPivoting

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