What is a Statesman?

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  • Written By: Darrell Laurant
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No one can apply for the post of statesman, nor is it in itself an elective office. The question of "What is a statesman?" has been debated since the days of Plato, who wrote a long play titled "The Statesman" (in which one of the protagonists was Socrates) but failed to nail the term down.

Historian Charles A. Beard, writing in the American Mercury, noted: "The statesman is one who divines the long future, foresees the place of his class and nation in it, labors intelligently to prepare his countrymen for their fate, combines courage with discretion, takes risks, exercises caution when it is necessary, and goes off the stage with a reasonable degree of respectability."

President Harry Truman, with his dry Missouri wit, defined a statesman as "a politician who's been dead 15 years." Indeed, most statesmen are associated with government in some form, although not always as an elected official. Some are appointed, such as the American Secretary of State, a few are private citizens.

Actions and accomplishments are important in achieving statesmanship, but style also comes into the mix. Thus, Franklin D. Roosevelt is seen as a statesman by almost everyone, while Harry Truman is not; the same with John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Still, as Beard pointed out: "The same person who is a statesman to some part of the public is a demagogue and a charlatan to the other." Hence, Truman's waiting period. Often, it takes time for statesmanship to emerge.

At the risk of presuming to succeed where Plato and others have failed, here is a short list of what seem to be statesmanlike qualities.

1. A statesman is generally above partisan politics.
2. A statesman takes the long view of things, and tries to consider what is best not only for his nation or group, but for everyone concerned.
3. A statesman possesses the power of persuasion, not only to other national and international leaders, but to his own constituency. Plato referred to his ability as "herding."
4. A statesman can be tough when needed, but never loses his (or her) temper or perspective.
5. The things that a statesman accomplishes often wind up not only in newspapers, but history books.

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Post 5

I think that a statesman is a leader who believes in justice and who wants to take a nation forward. He works hard to achieve equality, aims for development and can see situations objectively.

Post 4

I'm not sure if I agree that a statesman must be above partisan politics. That might be an ideal but is it really true? Even if a statesman does not officially declare support to a political party, everyone has a vision or a political ideology.

The characteristics of a statesman described in the article seem like a sort of utopia. This description make statesmen sound like angels or prophets. I don't think that anyone has all of these qualities.

Post 3

Harry Truman's comment on who is a statesman is hilarious but I think that there is truth in it. Statesmen do not usually receive the recognition they deserve while they are alive. It seems that society is a bit late in appreciating them and often recognize them as "statesmen" after they have passed away. Of course, the vagueness of the term has a role in this, but it's not the only cause.

Post 2

@Logicfest -- as long as you have party politics, you'll always have a debate over whether politicians look out for the best interests of the nation or the members of their own parties. The insinuation is that parties, by their very nature, are only out for what is best for their members.

Is that charge true? Could it be that political parties simply present different opinions as to what the best interests of the nation are and that people who subscribe to those theories are legitimately out to protect the future of the country? Again, that's another topic for debate.

Post 1

That's not a bad list at all and should look very familiar to anyone who holds a political science degree. The notion that statesmen are ideally suited to lead the nation while those mostly loyal to a political party are not has been a topic for debate since the United States was founded.

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