Audacity, Freedom, Captivity

Thank you to Jim M., a regular reader here, who emailed me a link to something that I had written but completely forgotten. It is this, which is itself part of this.

Here is how that came about: About a year ago, my publisher asked me to meditate, in less than 500 words total, on people in the news at that time, in the style of Hannibal and Me. The idea was not to regurgitate anything from the book, but to extend the approach as one might in casual conversation. The exercise was meant as a teaser for book professionals.

So I banged out three haikus, each with a theme, a person in the news, and a person from the book:

  • Audacity – Sarah Palin – Sempronius/Flaminius/Varro
  • Freedom – Hillary Clinton – Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Captivity – Larry Page – Albert Einstein

(Just to be completely clear: Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton and Larry Page are not in the book. My publisher and I were just having a bit of fun.)

Here goes:


The best defense is a good offense, and Sarah Palin has adopted this principle as her own. Wherever she appears, she attacks. When she feels cornered, she attacks harder. Palin might want to study the Roman generals Sempronius, Flaminius, and Varro. Each was ruined by this strategy when he met a shrewder opponent, the Carthaginian Hannibal. All three had only one approach: audacious attack. All had a history of success. But this made them inflexible. Hannibal turned this inflexibility against them. In three separate battles, Hannibal goaded them into attacking, then waited until their forces, through their own momentum, lost their balance. When they did, Hannibal fell upon them.


In one of her debates with then-candidate Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton said, “Everyone here knows I’ve lived through some crises.” She could only have been referring to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That humiliation could have shattered her marriage to Bill Clinton, his presidency, and her own life. That it didn’t and instead helped launch her onto a new path suggests that Clinton’s psychological journey paralleled that of another former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1918, Mrs. Roosevelt discovered love letters between her husband, Franklin, and her secretary, Lucy Mercer. She plunged into a deep depression. But in her rage and sorrow, she discovered a feeling of liberation. The Mercer affair freed her to redefine her life’s meaning and her options. It also freed her to view her husband honestly, and the two formed a new, very different but ultimately stable bond.

(Click for credits)


At age thirty-eight, Larry Page takes over as chief executive of Google. He cofounded it with Sergey Brin when they were both twenty-five and students at Stanford, after Page invented his revolutionary PageRank search algorithm. In 2001 they hired an older man to be CEO, but ten years later the apprenticeship is over: It is Page’s turn to run the company. He might want to review what happened to Albert Einstein at the equivalent juncture in life: At twenty-six, Einstein had produced four short but revolutionary papers that transformed physics. Einstein then kept refining his insights until he was thirty-eight, when he discovered general relativity. Although he did not know it then, this was a turning point. His imagination became a prisoner of its very success. A perplexing conservatism seized Einstein’s mind and never let go. Page must make sure that this does not happen to him—or to Google.

Should Obama choose Hillary?

So everybody is wondering whether Obama will choose Hillary to be his Secretary of State.

I’ve been thinking that he might do that ever since I heard Obama speak, during the primaries, about Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln shrewdly, wisely, disarmingly followed the advice to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. He brought his harshest political rivals into his cabinet, where he could watch them and where their interests were aligned with his. “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”, he once said.

Naturally, Obama’s way of thinking immediately resonates with mine in at least one way: He instinctively looks to history for lessons and guidance in the here and now. I instinctively do the same. It is the premise of my book.

Taizu, the first emperor of the Song dynasty

Taizu, the first emperor of the Song dynasty

So here is another story from history that Obama might like. The first emperor of China’s Song dynasty was fighting against a rival, King Liu, to consolidate his rule. Song won and brought Liu to his court, where he offered him a glass of wine. Liu assumed that Song was about to kill him, with poisoned wine, and begged for mercy. Instead, Song laughed, took the glass and drank it himself. Then he made Liu a high-ranking adviser at his court. Liu would be one of the most loyal servants in Song’s retinue.

A while later, Song defeated another king. Song’s ministers lobbied to have this king killed or locked up, presenting reams of documentary proof that he was plotting to kill the Song emperor. The emperor had him brought before him. Then he promoted the man, appointed him to high rank, and sent him home with a package to be opened later. When the man did open it, he found all the documents proving his plot to have the emperor killed. He also became one of the emperor’s most loyal servants.

The benefits of this sort of thing are clear: If your enemies are at large (as Hillary would be in the Senate), they can cause mischief and plot revenge. Their success is your failure, your success their failure. But by bringing them close and aligning their success and failure with yours, you disarm them. Bonus: Because everybody knows that they are former enemies, they must forever work harder than the others to earn their trust.

Wild cards: None of Lincoln’s or the Song emperor’s enemies had a spouse such as Bill. And Bill would still be at large. Oh boy.

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