Because we have a global audience, I must start by explaining that, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, a smart aleck is “a person displaying ostentatious or smug cleverness’. It also reports that one usage of the word ‘smart’ means: “(of transactions) unscrupulous to the point of dishonesty”. If you watch crime movies the way I do, there is a tendency to admire ‘smart play’, that is, ruthlessly clever and effective maneuvers. The best crime bosses are masters of ‘smart play’. In order words, they are smart alecks.
What is fascinating is how often (particularly in the massed punditry of elite global media) a capacity for smart play by political leaders is glorified. Leaders are routinely judged and compared with regard to whether or not they appear to shape the game, determine events, or impose their will on others and so on. If they do not seem to do that, they are dismissed as effete. If they seem to do that, they are admired and glorified. What is particularly striking is how often the writers who say these things leave out ethical standards. I believe, for instance, that true evil is a willingness to act without ethical considerations. Yet, notice how often leaders are admired for ostentatiously clever play even if the methods are odious.
But I am interested in a much narrower question. And it is this: if we leave out ethical considerations, is a reputation for ‘smart play’ good for a leader? Does it make her more effective? To throw this into bold relief, I am going to tell two kinds of stories- one domestic, and the other global.
There was once a national leader who mastered the art of brilliantly effective political communication. He used it not only to win elections but to govern. He and his team deployed all the modern tools: intense, detailed voter surveys; tremendous message discipline; the masterly deployment of sound bites that seem to roll off the tongue effortlessly; and so on. So successful was the leader and his team that political leaders from around the world sent teams to study their methods. Scholars published case studies. And the mass media wrote admiring articles by the thousand. Soon enough, the practitioners working for the leader became famous, too. They were known as Sultans of Spin, maestros of the dark arts of spin-doctoring.
In other words, the leader acquired a reputation as a smart aleck; he and his team became known for smart play.
Case Two, Case Three, Case Four, etc.
In international relations, statecraft, as we all know too well, has a dark side. Some of that dark side is as old as the dawn of human societies. The business of spying is an obvious example, high tech or low tech. And there are things that states do abroad that, were they to be discovered, leaders would routinely deny…so long as that denial is plausible. I believe the practice is called ‘plausible deniability’. But does a leader really want to acquire a global reputation as a practitioner of any of the dark arts of international relations? We have had cases now where dark arts have become embarrassingly visible and countries and leaders have become famous practitioners. In each case, the consequences have been stark: relations with partners and friends have been damaged, trust has been destroyed, and the benefit of the doubt is no longer given, and so on. Something else tends to happen in these instances. Leaders being leaders have some tolerance for smart play from other leaders, but when the dark arts become known to broad publics in their countries, censorious public opinion tends to be aroused. Then, leaders feel compelled to react, to retaliate in visible ways.
In Case One – the Sultans of Spin case – public trust in the particular leader began to collapse. For, his opponents happened upon a clever strategy. They began to let the country know how good the leader and his team were at the dark arts of spin. Soon enough, nobody believed a word coming out of his mouth. The situation called for drastic remedies. The main one was the decision to start exposing the leader to unfiltered, un-choreographed interactions with the public and the media, including brutal grilling sessions captured on live TV. The message to the public was: ‘See… no tricks!’ It took months of effort of that kind to begin to repair the damage done by the acquisition of a reputation for smart play.
And that really is my point. Hey, we are all grown-ups, and the power game can be a nasty business. Leaders have to be tough; they have to be capable of clever maneuvers. Otherwise, they will be crushed. But as they do that, you hope that they maintain a basic commitment to ethical standards and keep on the right side of the law. What is clear though, it seems to me, is that acquiring a reputation as a smart aleck has nothing to recommend it. All it does is bring a whole world of trouble.
Photo by John LeMasney, available here 
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