In November 2008, Barack Obama, a junior senator from Illinois, was elected President of the United States. On January 20th, 2009, George W. Bush stepped down as the 43rd President and retreated to the quiet of West Texas. He managed to stay out of the public eye, and spent much of his time on charities for wounded veterans, relaxing with his family, or on the golf course. As tempting as it may have been, he refrained from weighing in on the impassioned public debates as they unfolded across his television over the next 8 years: hot-button issues such as universal healthcare, closing Guantanamo, the Iranian nuclear program, and climate change.
The idea that leaders should fade from public view after they hold power is nested in the Athenian practice of ostracism. Ostracism was the forced exile of a leader or political influencer to preempt tyranny from taking root. The leader would be expelled from the city-state of Athens for a period of ten years, at which point he would be allowed to return. You see, the Athenians understood that humans are irrational beings. The masses are influenced more by personality than by principle. And so, to preserve the Athenian democracy, a procedure was implemented to expel citizens who, through their influence or political capital, could potentially threaten the existence of the democracy.
Like many human institutions, the practice of Ostracism was eventually corrupted, utilized as a political weapon by opposing parties to rid themselves of their enemies. The last ostracism, that of Hyperbolos around 417 BC, is elaborately narrated by Plutarch: Hyperbolos is pictured urging the people to expel one of his rivals, but they, Nicias and Alcibiades, laying aside their own hostility for each other, used their combined influence to have him ostracised instead. According to Plutarch, the people then became disgusted with ostracism and abandoned the procedure forever (Plutarch, Life of Alcibiades, Ch. 13). While the practice fell into disuse, the original purpose behind it is worth consideration.
There comes a time when it is unhealthy for a nation to continue to have a political figure, specifically an influential figure, in the public arena. President Bush’s quiet recusal from the cameras and reporters can be seen as a self-imposed ostracism, or what I would classify as honorable exile. It was his recognition that if he continued to influence the American people, purposefully or inadvertently, he would not merely do damage to the incoming administration, but do far greater damage to the political structure, transition, and unity of the nation.
On the right side of the political spectrum, his potential post-presidency criticisms may have been welcome:
“Lo! Our true leader has cometh to speak out against this new tyranny!”
But it’s for exactly this reason that he didn’t speak. There are principles that run deeper than the particulars of our partisan divides; one of which is the successful and peaceful transition of power. Whichever side of the aisle your views lean, it should be agreed that President Bush’s decision contributed positively to the transition of power.
A former leader who maintains their presence in the public sphere and seeks to exploit their influence is detrimental to the progress and unity of a nation and potentially catastrophic to its future. Napoleon Bonaparte, after he was defeated, was exiled to the island of Elba where he was given control of the island and a small allowance. After attempting suicide, being cut off from his wife and child who were in Austria, and hearing rumors that he was to be moved to a more remote island in the Atlantic, the fallen emperor escaped Elba with 700 men on the French brig Inconstant.
When a regiment was dispatched to intercept him south of Grenoble, he approached to within gunshot range and proclaimed, “Here I am! Kill your Emperor, if you wish!”
The men did not shoot him, but responded “Vive L’Empereur!” And with that, Napoleon began reclaiming power. He would be stopped at Waterloo for the cost of 48,000 French and allied lives. His desire to reclaim greatness paired with people’s willingness to follow him caused his country much suffering. It is the same reclamation the Athenians sought to prevent.
The concept of honorable exile, if not imposed through term limits or other public policies, should be self-imposed by the contemplative leader. But at what point does the leader step down?
As an eye-opening example, here is a list of US Senators and Representatives by longevity of service. Some of them are retired, some of them still serve. Regard the number of years these congressmen have represented their districts or states… I can assume that these men and women initially ran for office motivated to make a positive change as honorable servants of the people. What I can’t assume is that after 40-50 years that selfless motivation didn’t shift, even in the slightest, towards an insatiable desire to maintain power. We know that this is a corrupt nature of humanity that exists, yet we don’t implement a balance to offset it. For this, we are content in trusting that a man or woman will use their best judgment…
I am not the arbiter of when a leader should exile themselves, but if we believe that absolute power corrupts absolutely, then there is a time when the prudent man must hand that power over. It is a struggle that rages within all men. Tolkien painted this idea clearly in his manifestation of the Ring. Those who held it felt its power. They could not themselves part with the ring and often needed others to assist them in separating from it.
The Honorable Exile is the way of the wise King. It’s the way of the man who sets aside his selfish ambitions to make way for his successor. He does not always believe in his successor, but rather, he believes in embodying the deeper truths that lead to the enduring success of his people.