12:00 AM, May 27, 1996 • By MICHAEL ANTON
Gary Hart is not a politician; he just played one in the United States Senate. He is, he wants us to know, a patriot -- an enlightened leader of his people who loves the common good (or, as he likes to put it, the "national interest") more than his own interest and who wishes, above all, to effect a restoration of America's greatness in the face of a tidal wave of barbarism. His definition of "the patriot" can be gleaned from his new book of the same name, in which he lays out a political philosophy meant to guide a new generation of American "leaders" through a most confusing and unpleasant age.
The Patriot (Free Press, 187 pages, $ 21.00) is a hilarious piece of work -- not that he meant it that way. Hart presents the thing as a modern update of Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince; indeed, the publisher's blurb announces confidently, "If Machiavelli had been an idealist, this is the book he would have written." If Machiavelli had been an idealist. . . . It is diffcult to imagine a statement more antithetical to the spirit of Machiavelli, history's most influential intellectual opponent of idealism in any form. If Machiavelli had been an idealist, he would not have been Machiavelli, wallower in harsh realities.
Hart makes an effort to mimic the form, if not the spirit, of the most famous work by his Florentine "mentor." There is the title: In this democratic age, Hart thinks the altruistic patriot should replace the base and self-serving prince. There is also a dedicatory letter, comparable to Machiavelli's astoundingly, cynically obsequious dedication to Lorenzo de Medici, ruler of Florence. Hart's is a self-serving and long-winded rant in which he exhorts an unnamed (and, one assumes, fictitious) "leader" to take up the banner that Hart himself was forced -- by the media, by the cruel realities of politics, and (to some small extent) by his own failings -- to abandon It is telling that, unlike Machiavelli, Hart makes the fictive claim that his tome has been requested of him by the dedicatee; this may help explain the supreme confidence, bordering on arrogance, that pervades The Patriot.
But the most important -- and obvious -- parallel is that The Patriot has exactly the same number of chapters -- 26 -- as The Prince, a common trick, well known to and practiced by Machiavelli himself (his Discourses on Livy has the same number of chapters as there are books in Livy's History of Rome) and by Machiavelli's own modern interpreter Leo Strauss (Strauss's essay on The Prince has 26 paragraphs). But one comes to the conclusion about halfway through The Patriot that Hart ought to have resisted this particular emulation. This book simply does not need 26 chapters, or even half that many, for the simple reason that Hart does not have much to say and so repeats himself endlessly. How many times does one need to read that, in the post-Cold-War era, America must redefine her foreign policy objectives?
Each of the 26 chapters begins with a quotation from Machiavelli, often tortured out of context or altered to fit Hart's own purposes. That one of Machiavelli's favorite devices is to deliberately misquote authors or use stories and anecdotes out of context in order to communicate a subtle point best left, as it were, unsaid, has been well established by Strauss and, more recently, by Harvey Mansfield (whose new book Machiavelli's Virtue ought to be read by anyone interested in understanding the real Machiavelli). Hart too uses this device, but for a different end, namely to make Machiavelli's thought conform, as much as possible, to his own idealism.
This is where a good chunk of the hilarity originates, for Hart recoils in horror from what Machiavelli actually says and takes it upon himsel to sanitize Machiavelli in a manner and to an extent that would sober even those who defend Machiavelli against Strauss's charge that he was a teacher of evil. Before a chapter entitled "Concerning the limitations on influencing other states," Hart quotes a Machiavellian metaphor: "It is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to frighten the wolves. . . . He who has known best how to employ the fox has succeeded best." Well, those four dots take the place of a goodly chunk of text that Hart would rather not see the light of day, at least not in the pages of his own book. For in the sentences that intercede, Machiavelli points out that cleverness is essentially indistinguishable from dishonesty; that a prudent prince both cannot and should not observe faith when such observance turns against him; that since men are wicked this path is ]perfectly justified; and that a prince will never have trouble coming up with an excuse to "color" his lack of faith.
Not very idealistic.