A professor of government, even a professor from Harvard, who comes to Washington to lecture on the "nature of politics" is asking for it. After all, Washingtonians think they invented politics. So when he arrives, dropping names like Aristotle and Plato, suggesting that we might learn more from great philosophical literature than from the front page, C-SPAN or the shout-and-insult cable-TV shows, we have to admire his willingness to shoot from the lip in a town where the practitioners of politics are more accustomed to shooting from the hip.
But when you have something to say, you can expect people to listen. Harvey Mansfield delivered the Jefferson Lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in the pursuit of intellectual achievement in the humanities, the other night without a single reference to presidential candidates, congressional debates or the war in Iraq. But it didn't take a high IQ for anyone in the audience to catalog his (or her) favorite heroes and villains simply by applying his criticism and insights to current affairs.
Political science, he says, has been diminished to narrow questions of self-interest instead of linking personal interest with the larger issues of the public good. The republic always suffers when there's a lack of authentic heroes to harness pride and ambition. Politicians inevitably reduce the important issues to spin, not reason. "In a contested situation, the asserted reason typically has to be made with bombast and boast because one cannot prove it," he says. "Certainly one cannot prove it to the satisfaction of one's opponent or enemy. That is why the atmosphere of politics is laden with reasons that convince one side but not the other." Politics, in other words, becomes mostly noise and smoke, with not much wisdom or fire.
"Manliness," as he defines it in his latest book ("Manliness"), drives men (and women) to take a stand based on personal pride coinciding with what's best for the community. This requires toughness to run against cultural and political conformity -- what may be the conventional wisdom. Margaret Thatcher "changed the politics of her country," Harry Truman knew that "the buck stops here," and even the movies can sometimes teach a lesson. Humphrey Bogart as Rick in "Casablanca" fused confidence and cynicism and was cool before someone invented cool. The professor cites the New York cops and firemen whose courage and bravery was instinctive on September 11. "Manliness" is not sex-specific in this definition, and it means having the courage to take risks to win big when there's a good probability of losing big.