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“The Most Important Man in the World” – a President or a Poet?

On the BBC’s “World Service” on September 3, 1998, as President Clinton flew from Russia to Ireland, I heard a statement that would be hard to surpass: President Clinton is the most important man in the world. This single, hyperbolic claim contains an entire philosophy (of sorts) of mankind, a more or less complete world-view of civilization (at least pro-Western civilizations) and its values, as well as a deeply-revealing insight into the human condition and mind at the ending of the twentieth century (dated from a seldom-recalled life and death). A dissident of the former USSR living in London stated in late August on a BBC radio discussion: Russia does not need ‘a poet’ (as a leader), it needs a president. But it seems that, at least in the view of some, the world already has a sort of unelected, acting, global “president” – “the most important man in the world”. And while President Clinton may have given the impression to some, by quoting Pushkin (and Chekhov) in his speech at the Moscow Institute of International Relations (МГИМО) on September 1, 1998, that he knew the poet’s writings, the President of the USA is definitely, almost definitively, not “a poet”! And there is more to this than is obvious.

Vaclav Havel and Bill Clinton in Washington, 16 September 1998
Václav Havel and Bill Clinton in Washington,
16 September 1998

Though I am not so unreal and stupid as to imagine that America, Russia, or much of any other place in the world – but still, consider President Havel of the Czech Republic – could be lead in our time by “a poet” (P. B. Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world”), I am so unreal and crazy as to wish that the intelligence, the inspiration, the sense of life, world and higher values of “a poet” (I do not include poets of decay, vulgarity, destruction or decadence), what Emerson once called a “fraternity to save the world”, were “most the world” – including for the inner and outer life of the US President, and the social, economic, and political orders of our world. For I also live in the illusion that the world might be a better place were it so.

Ignoring whatever of the current President’s spiritually-sleepy Southern Baptist Christian religious beliefs he may have carried from his early life in Arkansas to his life in Washington, D. C. (Biblical Commandment Number VII: Thou shall not commit adultery. – especially time and time again!), Clinton, though intelligent (not always true of US leaders) is not much of “a poet”, as a person – and certainly not as President. He is the continuation of George Washington’s unwanted “kingship” (which some suggested, just after the American Revolutionary War with England, that America should have): the “President of the United States of America”. Then there were about 2,800,000 “Americans”, now there are about 250,000,000. Yet the US constitutional “democracy” – progressing from a few distant colonies to the world’s now single superpower – continues onward, though we live in a time when, in the USA, as elsewhere, politicians and politics are distrusted as a whole; when there are huge, powerful, transnational corporations in the world; when scholars discuss the impending political and psychological dissolution of the “nation-states”; in a time of instantaneous global communication; etc. It seems to this American that one might ask of the USA, as Goethe did of the Holy Roman Empire (in which he lived, but which Napoleon in 1806 brought to an end during Goethe’s lifetime): ‘How do you [the Empire] still hold together so long?’

“The most important man in the world” is asserted to be a US President, not “a poet” (with which meaning I include: philosophers, religious or spiritual leaders, writers, scholars, et al). World power, property, prestige, . . . America, beginning in an early period of modern history, over time built a social order in which the US President today can give a few orders, and ships and supersonic jets, indeed fleets of them, follow his commands worldwide – as “Commander-in-Chief”, which also comes from the time of George Washington. (Admittedly few poets have such power and command today.) It is all quite sensible to us in our time – but it seems to me no less mad. Watching the thousand or so clever people at МГИМО, all focused upon the single man Clinton, made me wonder about “democracy” in the world. Christ said his “Kingdom is not of the world”; but the powers of the current “Baptist” US President are definitely in this world. The spirit of “a poet”, a “fraternity to save the world”, represent an attitude and view of man, life, world, civilization and values which, though they will not be “most important” in the world (or seldom, as for example in the Czech dissident playwright-become-President Havel), I think that they should be, for such leaders would set a better example for their peoples.

Bill Clinton as an individual, as President, in his address at МГИМО (that elite Soviet, and now Russian, institution) spoke to his Russian audience of little more than the values and concerns of our mediocre, globalizing, middle-class, materialistic civilization and time – as I have often mentioned: dollars not democracy rule in the world. He spoke mostly of worldly matters, about following the “rules of international commerce”, and gave as suggestions to Russia:

“fair tax laws and fair enforcement; easier transferability of land; strong intellectual property rights…; independent courts enforcing the law consistently and upholding contract rights; strong banks that safeguard savings; securities markets that protect investors; social spending that promotes hope and opportunity and a safety net for those who in any given time in an open market economy will be dislocated; and vigilance against hidden ties between government and business interests that are inappropriate.”

These are closer to the words (in Russia almost utopian) of a business consultant, than that of a President – not even to consider “a poet” as the “leader”, as the moral guide of a nation – “the most important man in the world”. So that politics is here subservient, clearly, to earthly economics, not to any higher “poetic” relation of man to the search for Truth. (Again, compare Clinton’s speech to that of almost any of President Havel’s.) While it is not clear whether his was the speech of a businessman or statesman, the fact that it seems a bit absurd, as we near the year “2000”, to compare Christ’s otherworldly Kingdom – as a definitive example of a spiritual, “vertical” view of man’s meaning, life and purpose on earth (of which religions dispute) – to the Baptist Clinton’s . . . President Clinton’s secular, earthly concerns, tells of the mind of our time?! (Clinton is called “the most important man in the world” not because he is William Jefferson Clinton, but because he is the President of the USA.)

Having listened attentively to many US Presidential (domestic and international) speeches for almost three decades, during which time I have heard (as an adult) six Presidents: Nixon (1969–1974), Ford (1974–1977), Carter (1977–1981), Reagan (1981–1989), Bush (1989–1993), and now Clinton (1993–[2001]), I found President Clinton’s speech at МГИМО to be completely unsurprising. While he said “everything” that he should have said (in Russia as it more or less is now), and basically said everything “right” (in a speech most likely written by others – Russian specialists included), he really said almost nothing at all. It was like some sort of predictable rhetorical secular sermon by a slightly boring but famous missionary of democracy, law and order, and “free market” civilization, coming into wild, corrupt, post-communist and faltering, democratically-“heathen” Russia, to preach, politely. If great “poets” afire are supposed to inspire mankind with higher meaning, the President’s speech tended to put one to sleep intellectually. It was perhaps only somewhat more lively, surprising and interesting than a lecture in Marxist-Leninist doctrine in the late Soviet period. Each time Clinton returned to his predictable speech’s positions, in his prepared text, the mind tended to “turn off”; each time he spoke extemporaneously – living speech (as it is sometimes appropriately called), of which his is capable – one could at least sense his person; not “a poet” (nor the values and Weltanschauung of “a poet”) and not even a great President, but at least an intelligent individual. So why did the Russians treat him like a sort of visiting king?

Clinton has now added his own personal damage to the institution, integrity and history of the “Office of the Presidency” (beginning, at least in my generation, with Richard Nixon’s “imperial Presidency” – President Nixon decided to resign from office when the US Congress approached impeaching him for “high crimes and misdemeanors”) by barely “confessing” (again!), on national TV, that he had committed adultery. He had attempted to deceive the disbelieving US population – and his wife and daughter – for six months. But Clinton’s succumbing to the “temptations of the flesh” are merely additional blemishes to the office in which he is just temporary employee.

Neither the Office of the Presidency, nor its temporary White House resident, are, unfortunately, “poets”; nor do either (necessarily) carry or seriously revere values and inspiration of “a poet”. If the President spent much of his МГИМО speech politely suggesting to Russia how to have a better life, he had to refer to “poets” (and writers) for humanity’s higher meaning, mentioning: Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Pasternak, Akhmatova, et al, (all of whom one can assume Clinton seldom if ever reads for pleasure, insights into the meaning of life, or for the spiritual nourishment of his soul – he presumably has his sleepy Baptist doctrines to answer all of his personal ultimate questions to life). Stating mostly American, or Western traditions and ideals, he suggested how Russia is to live better, how it can attempt to achieve life as it is in the USA and the West, but he himself, left the “why” to the poets whom he necessarily cited. I.e., the President depended on the otherwise little-regarded “poet” for the ultimate meaning and basis of his speech in Moscow. But poetry is of little passion – to most US presidents. “Poetry” in such corridors of power is little more than a decoration for the walls, perhaps a passing distraction; it is not the “most important” value in the world and life. Few presidents really feel reverence for “poetry” – truth rather than power, and thus I argue, they set a poor example for the world, lost enough as it is to think a President qua President “great”.

The ending of his speech even had a “why” especially crafted for Russians, In all this dry and sometimes dour talk about economics and finance, never forget that, whatever your human endeavor, the ultimate purpose of it is to fulfill the noblest urges of your soul. (It would have been said differently in the USA.) And even as to the “how” of Clinton’s speech – there is something lost and mad about a culture and civilization which attends so respectfully, which with so much tendency treats Clinton as if he were a “king”, when really his speech was really filled with all sorts of uninspiring, practical worldly concerns of the things in this world, and it was not clear that he wasn’t really rather some sort of popular business consultant.

So that my argument is that it reveals the foolishness of mankind in a secular, materialistic time, which prefers pomp, power and possessions, rather than poetry and the higher inner (and outer) life of man, that the President Clinton could be called “the most important man in the world”. It reveals the lost human longing for greatness – even for “a poet” – that the US President Clinton was treated as if he were some great individual, or king, at МГИМО.

In the ancient mythology of a “king” – the king is one who is great, noble and perfected in “thought, word and deed”, in mind, heart and will (the crown, shield and scepter/orb on the Russian Imperial Emblem), wherewith they bear the wisdom and insight equivalent to “a poet”, as ruler and example. But while some US Presidents have been great in their own ways, seldom so according to a lost, ancient ideal of man that we confused men and women of man collectively can imagine with modern minds. Our time still longs for “a poet”.

First published in the magazine English, #37, October 1998, p. 1-7.