Kennedy Signing the Quarantine Order
John F. Kennedy signing the Cuba Quarantine Proclamation. (1962)

“A politician thinks of the next election.  A statesman, of the next generation.”

James Freeman Clarke

It’s rare that we even use the term “statesman” these days unless we’re being fully ironic. But in living memory, there were men that we could easily refer to as “statesmen” regardless of our view of their policies or underlying philosophy. Political figures like Dwight D. Eisenhower or John F. Kennedy come to mind as examples of statesmanship.

A politician, on the other hand, is a far more common phenomenon and one that we are all too familiar with. There is no need to specifically call out an individual politician — though we will later. But you certainly have your own favorite examples of career politicians, men whose calling is not to country, or even to party, but to advancing their own interests on the public dime.

What is a statesman? How does a statesman contrast from a politician? And, ultimately, why does the difference matter?

What Defines a Statesman?

“Statesman’s” meaning begins with intentions, but does not end there. The important thing to ask when evaluating an individual to determine if they are a statesman or a politician is why they decided to enter public service: Did they feel called to steer the nation for its benefit or are they just looking for a cushy gig? To pull a page from theologian, James Freeman Clarke, are they thinking about the next election or the next generation?

There’s more to it than Clark’s rubric. However, this offers an opportunity to begin looking at what the fundamental definition of a statesman is. A statesman’s essence is not simply being around a long time and getting things done. It is an individual who values the health and well being of the body politic so much that they cannot imagine any way of life other than serving in that capacity.

Maybe they do it for a few years and return to the private sector. Maybe they remain a career politician — sorry, career statesman. But their career is not an end to itself, it is a means to an end.

Legendary Statesmen Throughout History

Oftentimes, examples of something can be a better explanation of what it is than the definition. To that end, here are some examples of statesmen from human history:

  • Cato the Younger was a conservative Roman Senator and Stoic who opposed Julius Caesar. So much so that he committed suicide rather than be pardoned for crimes by Caesar.
  • Benjamin FranklinBenjamin Franklin is one of the Founding Fathers who served largely in behind-the-scenes, unelected positions, such as ambassadorships and the Postmaster General. He constantly preached the need for a virtuous population to maintain a republic.
  • Otto Von Bismarck is somewhat different from our previous examples, because no one would ever accuse the Iron Chancellor of being anything but a hard-headed pragmatist. But this doesn’t not preclude inclusion in our list of statesmen. Everything Bismarck did (including uniting 25 states into an Empire in nine years), he did for the glory of Germany, not the glory of Bismarck.
  • Richard Nixon is not a person frequently thought of as a statesman. However, we should consider his final act as President: his resignation. Nixon was advised by some in his cabinet, including Dr. Henry Kissinger, that one option was arresting the Supreme Court and declaring martial law. Nixon gave up power for the good of the nation.

What Defines a Politician?

A politician, on the other hand, is almost synonymous with “career politician.” This is a person who keeps their finger in the wind, monitoring the pulse of the nation and responding to what the public wants in a very subjective manner from one day to the next.

The politician sees elected office not as a way to improve the lives of their constituents, as well as preserve the benefits of society for future generations. The politician sees public office as a way to enrich himself, possibly through corruption, but more often than not through simple pandering and short-term thinking.

Politicians might not hang around as long as statesmen, but it’s not for a lack of trying. The politician knows of no other way to make his way in the world other than by grifting on the public dime. He fears nothing more than losing an election. The statesman, by contrast, would rather lose an election than do what is wrong for the polity.

Examples of Politicians Throughout History

In the interest of ideology ecumenism, we are limiting our list of politicians to the dead:

  • Napoleon Bonaparte is thought of as an Emperor, not a politician. However, Bonaparte took many steps through the various iterations of the First French Republic to get there. Using populist rhetoric to scale the Republic, he cost millions of lives in his quest for a pan-European empire.
  • Buddy CianciAaron Burr was so driven by personal and political glory that he killed Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Party along with it. His animosity toward Hamilton was largely a function of Hamilton’s newspaper, the New York Post, mercilessly exposing his opportunism.
  • Lyndon Baines Johnson is known as the man who passed the Civil Rights Act, but his reasons for doing so had far less to do with concern for black Americans (Johnson was a prolific user of the n-word) than it was about ensuring that black Americans voted the right way. He was also the President who dramatically expanded the welfare state and the War in Vietnam. A textbook case of considering the next election over the next generation.
  • Vincent “Buddy” Cianci was Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island for 20 years — with an interregnum of seven years due to the assault and torture of his wife’s alleged lover. His second term ended with federal racketeering charges. Beloved by his constituents, Cianci became a poster boy for big city graft in the 1990s.

What Is The Difference Between a Statesman and a Politician?

The difference between a statesman and a politician is that one looks out for the long-term interests of the body politic, while the other looks out only for himself. Sadly, contemporary Western liberal democracy tends to select for the latter rather than the former.

Why is this? Like most important questions, it’s complicated. One is that there is a significant portion of the population living off of the public treasury. Another is the corrosive aspects of the welfare state on the nuclear family. Yet another is the related destruction of civil society. It is unclear if we can rebuild a strong republic without fixing social atomization first.