As Augustus Caesar lay dying 2,005 years ago, he called his closest advisers to his deathbed and warned them about three types of men who might end up with the empire: those who, though unequal to the job, would want it; those who, though capable, would not want it; and those who were both capable and wanted it.
This according to Tacitus’ Annals, the best history of the early Empire — the best history ever written, according to Edward Gibbon, who ought to know.
Need I add, 70 generations later, that Augustus’ second category had the fewest members, then and now: capable people who don’t want the job. I find only one person in Tacitus’ second category: Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. Why he declined to run I could not tell you, but I can tell you this: I don’t blame him.
Tacitus wrote that while an emperor was alive, there was no dearth of brilliant writers to praise him, from “swelling sycophancy.” But the histories of men such as Tiberius, Caligula and Nero “were falsified through dread while the men themselves flourished, and composed with hatred fresh after their fall.”
In words with resonance today, Tacitus wrote: “Sycophancy coexisted with haughtiness.”
Tacitus — our first modern reporter — wrote that his goal was to record “a mere few things about Augustus and his final period, then of Tiberius’ principate … without anger (or) partiality.” (All these quotations are from Tony Woodman’s translation of Tacitus’ “Annals”, Hackett Publishing Co., 2004.)
As New York Governor Al Smith said as he ran for president in 1928: “Let’s look at the record.”
At last count, 24 Democrats, or maybe 240, are seeking their party’s nomination for president. At least nine of them fit Tacitus’ first category: they are unequal to the job but want it — or say they do.
Leading that list is Marianne Williamson of California, a self-proclaimed “spiritual guru,” who is transparently “running for office” to boost her speaking fees. Fair game, I suppose, though basing a campaign on Donald Trump’s run in 2016 seems hardly appropriate for a Democrat. (And, yes, “spiritual guru” and “running for office” are sneer quotes.)
Disposing briefly of Tacitus’ first category, we have former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, a banker who seems to think his money is a qualification (but see: 2016 election); Andrew Yang, who wants to give everyone $1,000 a month (bribery as social policy); the mayor of Miramar, Florida, Wayne Messam — bet you didn’t know he was “running”; Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton; Colorado Senator Mike Bennet; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is carrying some heavy baggage; and — this just in — Tom Steyer, a billionaire who wants to impeach Trump.
Good idea, Tom! But a better one would be to throw your money at plausible people who might run for, and help take over, the Senate, without which impeachment is impossible.
I propose a fourth category, which I will call Tacitus 2½: People who pretend to be running for president, not to boost their income, but to bring an important issue to our attention. Here we have three “candidates:” former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel — 88 years old — who wants Democrats to pursue noninterventionist foreign policy; Washington Governor Jay Inslee, an environmentalist who wants to put climate change at the top of the U.S. and world agenda; and — my favorite — Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, who wants Democrats and Republicans to settle down and try to resolve their issues over beer and yoga.
My fifth category, Tacitus 2¾, has one member: former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Beto should be running for vice president. He should say he knows he ain‘t ready for the top job yet — who ever was? — but he wants to learn.
Why should Beto do this?
One: No politician has ever said such a thing before.
Two: It would be a welcome sign of humility — in a politician!
Three: It would be endearing. And how many endearing politicians do we have — has anyone ever had?
This leaves us with eight politicians who fit Tacitus’ third category: capable people who want the job: Liz Warren, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Julián Castro, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg and Kirsten Gillibrand.
If the Democratic National Committee had any brains at all, or any guts, they would whittle these 24 fakers down to eight, as quickly as possible.
But history shows that the Democratic National Committee has neither brains nor guts.
So let me tell the DNC, as gladiators used to say to Nero and Caligula: We who are about to die salute you.
(I have left former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper out of this, to deal with in another column.)