Thursday, July 20 marks the anniversary of the birth of Alexander the Great in 356 B.C. in Pella, the capital of ancient Macedon, now Macedonia, a region in northern Greece.
Alexander has been an obsession of mine since childhood, when I read the legends associated with his conquests of the Persian Empire in 331 B.C. From Alexander, I learned how to navigate difficult parents and how to lead from the front – skills that would later serve me well in grappling with equally challenging bosses. Thanks to Alexander, I learned to work through pain, illness, grief. I figured if he could fight a battle with a punctured lung, I could gut life out.
He is then a metaphor for the strong leader. But let’s not romanticize him. Alexander was an autocrat descended from many autocrats in an age of autocracy. He killed thousands in conquering Persia – partly out of a desire to avenge the Persian desecration of the Athenian Acropolis, ancient Greece’s 9/11, partly because Persia was simply there. His motives were at best mixed, mysterious – as was the man himself – and that makes him a particularly protean metaphor for today’s leaders.
President Donald J. Trump is a great admirer of Alexander. He told me himself in a 2004 email interview for a Gannett newspaper article on leadership. He had named a $10,000-a-night suite in the Trump Taj Mahal the Alexander the Great suite, because “he was the best, and it’s the best.”
We hear a lot about the best and being strong from Trump. “Make America Great Again” was his campaign credo; being strong, his creed. But how is he showing strength? And how is that “strength” making America great – again or still? When Persian Emperor Darius III condescendingly sent Alexander a polo mallet – somewhat akin to the snooty French sending playboy turned Brit hero Henry V tennis balls in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” – Alexander replied coolly “I am the stick. The ball is the world.”
Now it seems Russian President Vladimir Putin is the mallet and Trump, the ball. He did Americans no favors when he failed to press Putin on Russian interference in the American presidential election after he said what an “honor” it was to meet a man who is a murderer. "What do you do?” Trump replied when pressed on it. “End up in a fist fight with somebody, OK?"
No, but it was OK for Trump to post a video of himself beating down a man with a CNN logo on his face, right? It’s OK for him to talk about bleeding blondes, poke fun at the disabled and deride opponents for being fat, ugly and/or evil, right?
Alexander could be merciless. But when he found Darius dead, he buried him and avenged his betrayal and murder. He treated the Persian royal family with honor. When the defeated Indian King Porus told him he wanted to be treated as the king he was, Alexander did so. He understood that only a bully brutalizes the weak while cowering before the tough.
Trump’s capitulation to Putin underscores the continuing cloud caused by the Russian hacking scandal and the dissension it has sowed. And it makes America look weak in the eyes of a world in which perception is everything. Watch the brilliant series “Inside Putin’s Russia,” which aired on the “PBS NewsHour” last week.
“(America) is not so coherent. It is not so stable,” ultraconservative Russian political scientist Alekandr Duggin told reporter Nick Schifrin. “It is vulnerable, I would say. And we have seen what we needed to see, vulnerability of American society.”
That may not be the worst of it. The contempt of an enemy is understandable. But what about the pity of a friend? Read the blogs on which Canadians and Australians post. They feel sorry for us.
WWAD? What Would Alexander Do? He would rage and sneer at our predicament, which he never would’ve tolerated.
And, I think, privately, he would’ve wept.