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Thursday, February 19, 2009

THE GREATEST POLITICIAN OF ALL TIME

I hear the complaints piling up again about crooked, two-faced, lying politicians and it seems to me that the objections and the job description are nearly identical. The rules of politics were first laid down 2,400 years ago, and they have not been improved upon since. To be successful a politician must first be elected, and second he or she must be re-elected. And the proof of these rules was firmly established by the golden boy of ancient Greek democracy, the man who turned hypocrisy, sycophancy, performance and prevarication into an art form, the greatest politician of all time bar none, Alcibiades Alcmaeonidae. It wasn’t that after Alcibiades they broke the mold, it was that Alcibiades was the mold.His world was shaped by his uncle and guardian, Pericles (above), who defined a great leader as someone who “…knows what must be done and is able to explain it; loves one’s country and is incorruptible.” Having decided that Athens and Sparta were destined for war, Pericles devised a most unusual strategy. In 430 and 429 B.C. Spartan armies invaded Athenian territory (called Attica), burned crops and villages and took hostages. But the Athenian army refused to give battle, relying on their fleet to bring in grain from Egypt and the Ukraine to keep them fed. Pericles’ plan was to frustrate the Spartans until internal political dissent encouraged them to surrender. And it might have worked but for one unanticipated event. The plague arrived on the grain ships from Egypt in 428 B.C. and killed perhaps a third of the population of Athens, including Pericles.The abrupt vacuum at the top of Athenian politics was an opportunity for the young Alcibiades (above). He was a superstar right from the start. First he was a real Olympic athlete and “the Adonis of Athens…tall, shapely, remarkably handsome, fond of showy attire and luxurious surroundings…” (p 221, Baldwin Project) He was a powerful speaker whose slight lisp made him all the more endearing. He seduced women and men with equal ease and equally often.
And at 19 years old Alcibiades even beguiled the old pedophile Socrates. Reading Plato’s version of their dialogs is like watching a snake charmer with arthritis toying with a hungry python. Socrates began by berating Alcibiades’ youthful arrogance. “You say you do not need any person for anything …For you think you are the most beautiful and greatest” – and then later he fell under Alcibiades' spell, calling him “…the greatest of the Greeks.” Still, Socrates shared Alcibiades bed only once; if Athens had only been that wise.It seems that all Alcibiades learned from Socrates was that he needed a project worthy of his ambition. And in 415 B.C. Alcibiades suggested a cloak and dagger strike on the island of Sicily, a commando operation - perhaps even capturing by subterfuge the port city of Syracuse, Sparta’s strongest ally. But Alcibiades’ opponent, Nicias, not wanting his enemy given the chance to succeed, warned that such an expedition would have to be hugely expensive, requiring as many as 140 ships and 6,000 men. He meant to mock the idea but to the shock of both Nicias and Alcibiades, the Athenian council voted to fund the massive mission and then placed both Alcibiades and Nicias in charge of it.
Somehow the two foes managed to assemble the huge force. But Alcibiades should have been more worried about Nicias' cooperation, for when they landed outside of Syracuse they found a trireme from Athens had arrived there ahead of them. As soon as Alcibiades had sailed away the Athenian council had ordered Alcibiades home to stand trial for heresy and treason. It was obvious that Nicias was behind this, and Alcibiades had no intention of putting his fate in the hands of Nicias’ allies.
On his way back to Athens Alcibiades jumped ship at Thurii, and boldly contacted the Spartans. He offered them information on the Athenian expedition’s plans to capture Messina, and when that information proved correct the Spartans warily agreed to allow Alcibiades sanctuary in their city.Alcibiades had made his first betrayal. Once in Sparta, he converted from a luxury loving Athenian into a prime example of Spartan brutality and sadomasochism.
Like any good Spartan politician he began wearing simple clothes and eating cold gruel and exercising in public with the other sadomasochistic Spartans. He advised the Spartans on a strategy that led to the complete defeat of Nicias and the slaughter and capture of his entire Athenian force. In fact Alcibiades had become one of the most respected and trusted Spartans in Sparta - until one morning in 412 B.C. when the Spartan king Agis II came home unexpectedly to speak to his queen and Alcibiades was seen jumping out of her bedroom window. Agis II put out a contract on Alcibiades, and he disappeared, next turning up in Persia, as an advisor at the court of the satrapy Tissaphernes, who had been funding the Spartan war effort. Alcibiades had just made his second betrayal.Tissaphernes had been hoping to weaken the Athenians. But now he had begun to worry that the Spartans were getting too strong, which is exactly what he was told by his new political advisor, Alcibiades. On his advice the Persians cut back their cash support for Sparta, and Alcibiades put out peace feelers to his fellow Athenians. He convinced them that he could bring the Persians into the war on Athens’ side. Of course Tissaphernes had no intention of committing his forces until both sides were exhausted, but by the time the Athenians realized this, according to the poet Aristophanes, they yearned for Alcibiades even while they hated him. This was to be Alcibiades’ third betrayal.The Athenian generals made him an Admiral, and he engineered an Athenian naval victory at Abydos, near the Hellespont, and burned the little village of Byzantium. After another Alcibiades victory the Spartans sent home a desperate note. “Our ships are lost. Mindarus (the commander) is dead. The men are starving. We do not know what to do.”
In 407 B.C. Alcibiades made his triumphal return to Athens itself, to cheering throngs and the return of his property, which had been seized when he had joined Sparta. All charges against him were dropped; but not forgotten. His last betrayal had convinced the Persians to again fully fund the Spartan war effort. And in 406 B.C. Alcibiades sailed with 100 ships on a mission to assist Phocaea, which was under siege from Spartan forces. While making a scout Alcibiades left 80 ships at anchor at Notium under his second in command. But while he was away the fool brought on an engagement with the Spartan fleet, and was soundly defeated. His enemies blamed Alcibiades for the disaster, and he was forced into exile once again, and this time it looked final.In 404 B.C. Alcibiades was living in retirement with a mistress in Phyrgia, in what is today central Turkey, in a mountain cabin. In the dark of night assassins set the house on fire and murdered Alcibiades as he rushed out side. Says the Baldwin Project, “Thus perished, at less than fifty years of age, one of the most brilliant and able of all the Athenians.”
Some say it was the Spartans who killed him, and some that it was his Athenian enemies, and some say it was the brothers of a Persian woman he had seduced. If Alcibiades did not fit his uncle’s definition of a great leader, still he had been a successful politician for each of the three great powers of his time – Athens, Sparta and Persia. How could you not consider him the greatest politician of any age?

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Monday, February 16, 2009

THE EAGLE

I imagine myself standing in a topless hut on the rocky shores of Spitsbergen, half way between the fjords of Norway and the North Pole. It is July 11th, 1897, and most of the hut is taken up by a huge hydrogen balloon. In the basket suspended beneath that leaking gas bag is a jar headed Swedish engineer named Salomon Andree.

It was Andree who had dreamed up this plan for a hydrogen balloon flight to the North Pole, and sold the idea to investors, from average patriotic Swedes to scientific geniuses like Afred Nobel. Now, as he reaches out to shake my hand, a puzzled look comes over Andree's face. Where, he must be wondering, did I come from? But there is no time for explanations. I grasp his hand and pull him close. I whisper in his ear a final warning, “Ekholm was right. You have failed to face reality. That makes you the biggest idiot within ten thousand miles.” Andree nods and smiles absently. After all, he doesn’t speak English. He shouts, “Strindberg! Fraenkel!” Instantly, obediently, the slender Nils Strindberg and bullet shaped Knute Franknel leap into the basket, like two sacrificial lambs. The ropes are cut, and the Ornen (the Eagle) rises into the cold clear air and floats away. The three men are never seen alive again. What an idiot. Nils Ekholm had joined Andree in Spitsbergen for his first attempt at floating a balloon to the North Pole in 1896, but the southerly winds Andree had confidently predicted never showed up. The delay gave Ekholm time to crunch some additional numbers and he came to the disturbing revelation that the Ornen was leaking like a kitchen sieve. It would never, he realized, stay inflated long enough to reach the Pole, let alone safety on a farther shore like Alaska or Russia. When he expressed his reservations, Andree expressed disappointment with Ekholm’s lack of enthusiasm. After the flight was cancelled for the year Ekholm made alternative travel plans for the summer of 1897. And that was how Knut Fraenkel earned a chance at immorality and trichinosis; lucky him.

If the leaking gas bag had been the only problem, the expedition would have have still been in trouble. Instead there was an almost endless list of mistakes and false assumptions that insured doom, and all of them lead straight back so Salomen Andree.

Andree had invented a clever and simple device for steering the balloon by dragging ropes along the ice or water (note the trailing lines, above). It didn’t work. Andree had designed three clever sleds that folded away for easy storage in the balloon. They were so rigid you could break your back trying to pull them across the ice.

Andree invented a collapsible boat that they would end up dragging across the ice ridges until they collapsed. And Andree stocked the balloon with a ton or more of food, almost none of which could be easily transported by foot, should the balloon go down. Their tiny cook stoves often failed, releasing toxic fumes. But luckily they had also brought guns, assuming they would be able to feed themselves on seal and polar bear meat if they were forced down on the ice. But when prepared upon the innefficent stoves, they undercooked the meat, contracted trichinosis and died of dysentery; not the fate most 19th century explorer-romantics usually envisioned for them selves, death by constant toilet.

After they dissapeared into the sky on July 11th, for 33 years the assumption was that the brave trio had made it to the Pole but crashed while floating to landfall in Russia or Alaska, a thousand miles beyond rescue. Then in August of 1930 a Norwegian scientific ship stumbled on the remains of their last camp, not more than 200 miles from their starting point. The Norwegians found not only the three bodies but Andree and Franknel's journals and Strindberg's extraordinary photographs of the dead men. That was when the whole truth became known. On July 14th, the Ornen had crashed onto the ice, after just 51 hours in the air. (Stridberg took extensive photos of the 'landing'.) The three men then spent a week unpacking and deciding what to do. Only then did they set out for home.

They left behind the champagne and beer, but struggled to carry the cans of condensed milk and sausages and cheese. A week’s trek across the ice taught them the lesson and they abandoned almost half of their burden in big pile, and kept going. They had no brought no furs but only their heavy woolen clothing, covered at times by oilskins, that trapped the moisture underneath until they were swimming in their own sweat. As they marched, each two steps they took to the south were countered by the floating ice pack which carried them one and a half steps toward the north and east.

They clambered over two story high pressure ridges, sometimes reduced to crawling on all fours. They struggled over broken ice alternating with water leads that forced them into and then out of their clumsy boat, soaking their woolen clothing again and again.

Slowly they came to the realization that they were not making much progress. By the middle September they decided they were going to have to winter on the ice. They built an elaborate snow hut and prepared to float southward on the ice, which they knew they were finally doing by watching the shores of White Island (now called Kvitoya Island) drift slowly past their camp.

But in early October the pack ice cracked right down the middle of their new home, and they were forced to drag their gear onto the rocky shores of Kvitoya island, barely 200 miles to the northeast of their starting point. They used the last of their strength to build a new hut on the island. Shortly after they landed Strindberg died of an apparent heart attack and his comrades buried him under stones in a cleft in the rocks. And within a few days Franknel and Andree also died in their little hut. A hunk of polar bear meat found frozen solid thirty-three years later near their stove was infected with trichinosis spores.

They had survived for 11 weeks on the open ice, perhaps the most ill-prepared polar explorers in history. But they had transcended their own stupidity with courage and tenacity. In the end they were killed by a bad plan and bad planning. But as one writer has since noted, “Posterity has expressed surprise that they died on Kvitøya, surrounded by food…The surprise is rather that they found the strength to live so long".

I would put it slightly differently. I find it unimaginable that Saloman Andree would ever admit defeat, even if he knew he was dieing.

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