Years ago, when I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's great novel, "First Circle", which I still think was his finest work, however impressive the Gulag Archipelago is as sustained research, I was struck by the portrait of Stalin Solzhenitsyn drew. Here was the all-powerful dictator, confined to an apartment in the Kremlin, living as a paranoid, unable to trust anybody, suspicious, bitter and generally miserable. It offered a stunning insight into the price of power, and almost made you wonder why anyone with a shred of sense would want it -- or want more than just a tiny piece of it.
I got a similar feeling reading Noemie Emery's recent book, "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families," which I reviewed this week for the Register. Most of us who have paid attention know that the recent generation of Kennedys has been pretty full of ne'er-do-wells, but apparently the pattern is pretty common. Emery describes the Adamses, the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, the Bushes, with a bit of the Gores. In each case patrimonial ambitions for the family spawn to go into politics led to drunks, suicides, and generally miserable lives, even among those who had a certain amountof political success (I suspect AlGore was miserable until he got out of politics. It didn't make him any smarter to get out, but I think he's a good deal happier).
It's enough to make you wonder. Is political leadership inherently toxic, not only to those unfortunate enough to be subjects of especially ambitious leaders, but to the would-be leaders themselves? So would charm, amorality and a facility for obfuscation that sounds almost sensible rate as toxic assets?