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BOOK REVIEW: ‘How to Win an Election’
With the 2012 Republican National Convention having sent its candidate forward and the Democratic National Convention set to do the same, this year’s presidential campaign enters its most focused and fevered phase. Candidates, voters and dedicated observers of this vaunted political ritual would do well to take a deep breath and pick up a copy of “How to Win an Election,” the advice Quintus Tullius Cicero sent his brother Marcus in 64 BC when the latter ran for consul, the highest office in the Roman republic. At once a validation of how we humans choose our leaders and cunning in the way of Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” Quintus Cicero’s words of wisdom, filtered through the fluid new translation by Philip Freeman, are sobering and more than a little deliciously self-serving.
The book is arranged with the Latin text on the left and Mr. Freeman’s translation on facing pages. Broken down in two parts — how Quintus assesses the abilities of his elder brother and how he suggests a winning campaign can be prosecuted — what strikes the reader at every turn is just how sensible the advice is and how timeless. It also is a document of brotherly admiration. Quintus writes, “To my brother Marcus, 1. Although you already have all the skills a man can possess through natural ability, experience, and hard work, because of the affection we have for one another I would like to share with you what I have been thinking about night and day concerning your upcoming campaign. It’s not that you need my advice, but such affairs can seem so chaotic that it’s sometimes best to lay things out in one place in a logical order.”
He continues: “2. Always remember what city this is, what office it is you seek, and who you are. Everyday as you go down to the Forum, you should say to yourself: ‘I am an outsider. I want to be a consul. This is Rome.’ “
Marcus‘ “outsider” status derived from the fact he was not of noble birth. The son of a wealthy businessman, the 42-year-old candidate was considered Rome’s greatest orator. He already had served in the lesser offices of quaestor and praetor, and, before throwing in his hat for consul, he represented many prominent men who needed help in the Roman courts. In this way, he rose through the political ranks of the republic.
Quintus‘ advice is blunt and to the point. A few of the choicer observations, highlighted by Mr. Freeman in his introduction are: “Make sure you have the backing of your family and friends.” “Surround yourself with the right people.” “Call in all favors.” “Build a wide base of support.” “Promise everything to everybody.” “Communication skills are key.” “Don’t leave town.” “Know the weaknesses of your opponents — and exploit them.” “Flatter voters shamelessly.” “Give people hope.”
If the jaunty and reasoned advice seems almost too modern in its vernacular, the reader should keep in mind that Mr. Freeman’s previous books include “Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths” (Simon & Schuster). However, if a reader wants to be reassured that the advice springs from an election that took place 2,000 years ago, consider whom Marcus Cicero was running against.
Quintus writes: “But, you might say, what about the other candidates, Antonius and Catiline? Surely they are dangerous opponents? Yes, they certainly are, but not to someone like you who is energetic, hardworking, free from scandal, eloquent, and popular with those in power. You should be grateful to run against men like those two. They have both been brutes since they were boys, while even now they are notorious philanderers and spendthrifts.
“Consider Antonius, who had his property confiscated for debt, then declared under oath in Rome that he couldn’t even compete in a fair trial against a Greek. Remember how he was expelled from the Senate after a careful examination by the censors? Then after he was elected as praetor, he disgraced himself by going down to the market and openly buying a girl to keep at home as a sex slave. Finally, who could forget that the last time he put his name up for consul he went abroad and robbed innkeepers rather than stay here in Rome and face the voters?
“As for Catiline, by the gods, what is his claim to fame? He even murdered his own brother-in-law, Quintus Caecilius, a kindly old fellow and good Roman businessman who cared nothing for politics.”
There is much in this book upon which to ponder and reflect. Many years have passed since Quintus Cicero penned these words, but much has not changed. One piece of advice feels especially modern: “Finally, as regards the Roman masses, be sure to put on a good show. Dignified, yes, but full of the color and spectacle that appeals so much to crowds. It also wouldn’t hurt to remind them of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves.”
Well, there you have it. Strategy from our ancient ancestors. Oh, and by the way, Marcus Cicero won the race for consul, “gaining more votes than any other candidate.”
Carol Herman is books editor at The Washington Times.
About the Author
Carol Herman, a member of The Washington Times staff since 1999, has been Books Editor for the last seven years. An award-winning OnBooks columnist, she has been a guest on WTOP and has been a guest panelist on C-Span’s BookTV. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Tulane University and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Chicago....
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