I am basically a naïve idealist. Wise leaders, I have reasoned, follow moral means to accomplish the common good.
Time has, unfortunately, soured my idealism. I have discovered numerous ambitious men (and some women) who will use any available means to accomplish their goals, sometimes elevating, but sometimes far less noble.
Youthful naiveté discovers reality: Douglas R. Stringfellow
My youth was spent in the environs of the local Mormon ward, surrounded by kindly neighbors and community members—people like the Ingles and Palmers. They worried about each other, gave unselfish service, and were guided by noble motives. Unfortunately, I was wrong to suppose all people are in that mold.
A vivid memory cast doubt on this idyllic vision. I was beginning my high school senior year. Douglas R. Stringfellow, finishing his first term as a U.S. representative from Utah, was running for re-election. Stringfellow was a sort of folk hero. I remember an earlier “performance” in our local ward: after walking up the aisle with the aid of a cane, he delivered a mesmerizing sermon describing his heroic ventures as a secret service agent. He described his role rescuing atomic scientist Otto Hahn and his painful torture in a German prison. His experience, he claimed, had contributed to his religious conversion.
But in 1954, Stringfellow denied the story. Our family was at the dinner table; the television was on in the living room. Suddenly our attention diverted from family conversation to the TV. Stringfellow was on, and he was confessing. The stories he had told were lies. He was a fraud.
I learned people cannot always be believed, no matter how convincing, and some people use questionable means to accomplish their end. I believe that it was about this time I first heard the term Machiavellian and understood I saw the trait in action.
A school teacher discovers vanity and deceit: A fellow teacher and some debaters
At 24, I began a teaching career. I was pleased to work beside numerous noble people—people like Myrintha Gill and Robert Keddington—whose primary motive was to train young minds, encourage genuine learning, and develop high-minded citizens.
But not all.
That vision was shattered one day: I walked past the classroom of another teacher, an athletic coach and history teacher. A local radio station was holding a contest to identify the listener’s favorite teacher; the winner would win an exotic trip. My jaw dropped. The teacher had torn the telephone book apart, distributed pages to class members and was supervising the students as they prepared phony votes so that he would win the trip. My chagrin grew as this activity continued for several days.
As a forensics teacher I discovered some students fabricated evidence to win debates, ignored regularly drawn topics and gave their “extemporaneous” speeches on their favorite subject, and passed off fantastical stories as real in winning orations. My students and I were aghast when we overheard the coach from another high school deliver an impassioned plea to his students to win—it didn’t matter how they did it; winning only was the goal. Again, the whispered condemnation: Machiavellian.
My introduction to dishonest motives grew.
A legislator witnesses amazing duplicity: Two peer representatives
In 1979, I began a fifteen-year stint as a member of the Utah House of Representatives. Here I worked with numerous men and women for whom I have much respect. Loren Pace, Afton Bradshaw, Warren Pugh, and Nolan Karras come to mind. Unfortunately, all my colleagues were not of that type.
One representative’s duplicity appalled me. In closed meetings of the Republican caucus, he argued vociferously against a measure I believed would result in educational improvement. After, in the secret meeting when the legislation was voted “up,” the same representative requested he be recognized on the House floor in open meeting so he could speak in favor of the motion. It would “strengthen his hand in the next election.” I still find it difficult to believe such Machiavellian duplicity.
A current politician is a long-time acquaintance, colleague, and sometimes friend. I have also become extremely distrustful. His actions as a leader in the House in Utah led me to question his motives. In 1994 when approaching the end of his Utah Legislature career, he wrote an astounding letter. He argued against specific reforms and, to verify his point, confessed his earlier duplicity while he and I were both high school debate teachers. In his letter, he acknowledged how he used the rules in a questionable manner so his team could win the regional championship. From his letter: “I cheated….I won by manipulation of the rules.” The legislator was proving that certain actions should not be done because sometimes it is necessary to avoiding playing by the rules. The representative is a bright man, frequently effective, but I cannot trust him. How would I know when he was honest with me?
My idealism became even more tarnished, and my faith in colleagues diminished.
Working with a man for whom the end was always more important than the means: the Utah Centennial
In 1994, I resigned the Legislature to become the executive director of the Utah Centennial Commission. What a wonderful opportunity! I was able to travel the state, meeting and working with hundreds of delightful and motivated people who wanted our 100th birthday party to be a smash—people like Bernice and Sid Smith who battled cancer while making sure the parade down Salt Lake City Main Street was a delightful creation of the one that had happened 100 years before!
What in most ways was a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience also had its bitter side. I worked with a statewide committee in executing the plan. One of the leaders of that committee is a particularly talented individual. Unfortunately, I discovered he was uninhibited in using fabrication and manipulation if it brought him closer to the final product he desired. It was impossible to tell whether he was telling the truth when he quoted Church and State leaders or simply creating a mythical set of statements to get him closer to his goal.
This competent individual could demolish character or create an illusion to reach his end. He seemed the epitome of the Machiavellian stereotype.
A state school board member faces manipulation: some bright women creating a web of deceit
For sixteen years starting in 1998 I served on the Utah State Board of Education. Again, I worked with many wonderful people—John Pingree and Debra Roberts, for example. But again, I found some other colleagues worked with hidden motives. Disagreement is to be expected, but when I discovered some used subterfuge to advance their ends, I was troubled.
One individual, for instance, was and is in some ways a friend. I find much in her with which I agree, but I found her crisscrossing path to achieve her ends baffling. One could never tell what position she would take or what motive would drive that position. Often she appeared to adopt a stance simply to gain favor with others. “You have to think strategically, Kim,” she would say. Her definition of “strategy” seems to include traits I would label as misleading manipulation.
Another board member is extremely bright and a hard worker. But, she, too, used any means she could to accomplish her goals, often working in secret or using strange maneuvers to reach her goal. I recall one instance: her use of parliamentary procedure executed in a Machiavellian fashion. The issue was whether to seek a renewal of the waiver from No Child Left Behind. Out of nowhere, the board member made the motion to postpone indefinitely. I had never heard anyone make this motion since my earlier academic studies of parliamentary law. Most observers, I believe, find the motion obscure and deceitful, and I had never heard anyone use it in serious debate. To postpone indefinitely is a misleading title; the motion does not actually postpone. This mislabeled motion kills the action. Uninformed participants did not know that. The board member made the motion subtly, believing, I think, that no one would no its true intent. Why didn’t she just argue against the motion in clear fashion? Fortunately, her true intent was revealed, and the motion barely failed.
The entire state appears to have been victimized by two attorney generals: Swallow and Shurtleff
Although the judicial process has yet to be completed in this case and hence a final decision has not been reached, the cases of John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff seem to reek of Machiavellian manipulation. Although both claim they never broke the law, a lengthy trail of emails and averred promises lead many followers to understand that these two politicians distributed favors, solicited bribes, made decisions, obstructed justice, and generally acted to favor their personal interests. The news accounts suggest the priority for both was personal advancement, sometimes followed distantly by what was best for the State.
BOTTOM LINE: The public needs to check their political leader’s motives carefully
The debate about what Machiavelli actually believed is unclear. Some argue his writings are a textbook about what some politicians do, rather than what they should do. Leaders as diverse as John Adams and Joseph Stalin appear to have found credence in Machiavellian philosophies.
What Machiavelli actually thought is an academic question. In my own experience, I discovered community, state, and national leaders operate with totally different motives. Intellect shows little relationship to operation. I believe many are driven to accomplish good through noble means. Some, however, give little heed to the means. Promises are made to be broken. Rules are bent and manipulated. Innocent victims are of secondary importance to the goal the deceiver is driving towards. These people are primarily interested in the end and care little how they accomplish it.
My observation teaches many leaders are trying their hardest and are nobly motivated for the good of citizens. Probably most of us struggle with mixed motives. (I would place myself in this category.) Unfortunately, some leaders are primarily addicted to self-serving motives.
Citizens must be alert and perceptive. Ask questions: Why are leaders doing what they are doing? What is their motive?
Our country, indeed the world, is blessed when worthy men and women driven by noble motives seek the common good.