Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Hacker: The greasy pole is important. I have to climb it.
Humphrey: Why?
Hacker: Because it's there.

Yes, Minister: "The Greasy Pole"

I'm convinced that we don't have a good handle on ambition.  I'll try to write more about that later...among other things, I think it's safe to say that we don't like ambition, and that we're suspicious of the ambitious.  At least, if we think of them that way (Lincoln and Washington were both highly ambitious, but it's not exactly the trait that we celebrate).

And yet, we do not have a system in which offices are dispensed by lottery.  In fact, we have a system based on ambition.  Therefore, the very least I think we can say about ambition is that whatever one might think about a system that rewards and requires ambition, it makes no sense at all to judge individuals who succeed within that system on how ambitious they are.  They are all ambitious.  You don't get to be a serious candidate for President of the United States of America without being ambitious.  And, for the most part, you don't get to be a Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States of America without being ambitious.  That's not an absolute -- as far as I know, lightning did strike in the case of David Souter -- but for the rest of them?  Absolutely.  Not just Kagan: Sotomayor, Roberts, Alito...they all organized their lives in such a way that they could be serious candidates for the high court.  Even someone such as Robert Bork did that; he badly, by all accounts, wanted to be on the court -- he just misjudged the rules and norms of how to get there.

I'm pretty confident that this suspicion of ambition is what's at the core of the unease with Kagan expressed by David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan (see also an interesting reaction from Ta-Nehisi Coates).  My advice for them is simple: get over it.  Of course SCOTUS candidates are going to be ambitious and organize their lives around the pursuit of a seat on the court, just as presidential candidates, or Speakers of the House, are going to do the same.   It's not just an effect of the post-Bork rules, either; change the process, either by reforming the rules or otherwise, and you'll get highly ambitious nominees who play by those rules.  Make strong public position-taking important, and then you'll get people like Kagan and Roberts who publish lots of provocative arguments.  Same ambition, just tailored for whatever the norms demand.  Of course, presidents used to put actual politicians, people who had run for office, onto the Court, but I think we can safely assume that Taft and Warren were just as insanely ambitious as Kagan and Roberts.


1.  Regardless of the way we choose Justices or any other top position, we're going to get candidates who are highly ambitious; there's just no way to avoid that.

2.  Therefore, it is foolish to count it against any candidate that she appears to be ambitious, or that she does the sorts of things that people who want to reach the Court (or other high office) organize their lives to do.

3.  It is possible, however, to think of reforms that would change the ways that ambition is expressed.  If you want more explicit statements of political positions, make that a requirement.  Just don't mistake any of that for purging ambition from the system, or for opening the gates to less ambitious people.

(By the way: I'm thinking that it's possible that not everyone has watched Yes, Minister.  If yolu're at all interested in governing, this is completely unacceptable.  Highest recommendation; a great, great series). 


  1. Although Douglas Adams would disagree, I think it would be a disaster to have people in power who didn't want the job.

  2. Yes, yes, assuredly yes. "Ambitious" is a meaningless description (negative or positive) of people who are highly motivated to succeed at something, whether politicians or football players or concert violinists. Tells us nothing that differentiates their characters from others who are successful in the same field. One man's "fire in the belly" is another's "power-hungry" -- neither telling us squat.

    I usually try to avoid "sexist" accusations, but I do think this whole "ambition" business is deeply unfair to women professonals. If Kagan had been outspoken about her opinions, we all know she would have been an egomaniacal castrating bitch. But she kept her opinions to herself, learned to play well with others, worked like a demon, and impressed nearly everyone both professionally and socially with the quality of her thinking and her character. So she's a calculating, creepy (seriously McMegan, creepy?!?), conniving (secretly emasculating closet lesb?!?) bot-witch.

    Can't win for losing.

  3. It's hard to say whether being ambitious is a bad thing or not in a politician, but I don't think all this carping about it is pointless, exactly. If we want our presidents to select justices who are less consumingly ambitious than Kagan or Roberts, then I guess one way to do it is to reform the system -- but come on: Reform like that is never going to happen.

    Meanwhile, I think public pressure against naked amibition has at least some effect. If people hate ambitious justices, shouldn't there be *some* pressure on presidents to choose slightly more ordinary people?

    Unfortunately, the best example of public pressure I can think of is the hit John Kerry took in 2004 for his early entry into politics and apparent lifelong hunger for the presidency. But since the alternative was George Bush, I'm not sure that says much against ambition.

  4. I think a lot of what people are in an inchoate
    way objecting to with Kagan isn't her ambition but rather the sort of comprises she (and any one like her) has to make in order to optimally pursue that ambition. You'd think a talented person, with progressive values and the dri e of Kagan might actually see it fit to express and try to concretely advance these values during the prime of her career. Instead she has scrupulously avoided even expressing values all aparently on the lightning strike oportumity that should would wind up in front of senate confirmation panel. It worked out for her but I agree with her criics that is not a particularly admirable path, no matter how
    tactically sensible.

  5. Ambition has been recognized as dangerous by everyone who can think past a headline. Have you never read Macbeth?
    this doesn't mean it's always bad--dynamite is famously used to build as well as to destroy, but to treat it as anything other than really tricky, risky stuff is crazy. so with ambition.
    Why does this seem a new idea to the blogosphere? maybe blogger types really don't read much more than 100 or 200 characters at a time. just as is so often claimed.

  6. Just out of curiosity, how well does 'Yes, Minister/Prime Minister' play in an American context? I've always seen it as a show where a lot of the humour comes from the specific peculiarities of the British public service, which I wouldn't have thought would necessarily translate particularly well.

    As a fan of the show and a public servant, though, I can vouch for the fact that it's both hilarious and terrifyingly accurate...

  7. If the norms change, and an ambitious candidate changes behaviors to satisfy the new norms, would we call that candidate ambitidextrous?

  8. Brendan,

    Yes, ambition is certainly dangerous in Macbeth, and in Richard III. But it's far more ambiguous in Caesar, in Hamlet, and in's possible that lack of ambition is equally dangerous, in some contexts. And as far as Henry V (and the two plays leading up to it), one could certainly read it as saying that ambition is a very good thing. As I said, I don't think we've done a good job of sorting all of this out.

  9. MattB,

    While the American relationship between civil servants and pols is very different, I think the ways that the show gets the mindset of both types translates very well. There are some vocabulary issues for American audiences, but it's not too bad, and I'm sure that (as with Shakespeare for all of us) some of the reference-based jokes go over our heads, but the core of it works just fine, IMO.

    Oh, and ASP...that was truly awful.

  10. Hi Jonathan,
    i'm having trouble remembering lear well enough, but Hamlet's backstory is a familial murder motivated entirely by ambition--that's the germ of everything that happens in that play. his problem is not lack of ambition, but lack of decision. the ambitious are there--his mom most obviously--but are not the heroes at all. The story, the drama, of Caesar is ENTIRELY driven by ambition. More to the point for application to the real world of today, so were the actual historical events that the play is based on. Caesar was murdered primarily because a)his own ambition scared the republicans of the day, and b) many of them had their own ambitions driving them to get him out of the way. the civil wars that followed (and followed, and followed) were almost exclusively contests of various parties ambitious for empire.

    henry V i grant you---in Shakespeare and in life--is an example of extraordinary achievement motivated by one man's ambition to be king in two countries. as i said, ambition creates as well as destroys--although in fact Henry's archers destroyed a huge fraction of French nobility (the world has not suffered from their absence, i don't think)in creating his reputation. a great story. and WS added to it some great poetry and speechifying.
    by the way, a small matter, but he never did get to rule France.
    we do credit on the plus side for ambition that it gave Mr. S so much material to work with in creating our richest literary lifetime achievement in English so far.

  11. It's funny that Andrew Sullivan and David Brooks find Elena Kagan's ambition unsettling. After all, I would say they are both incredibly ambitious and successful people, who have tailored their output to conform with the norms for becoming a mainstream political commentator in the United States.

  12. Brendan,

    I think Caesar (the play -- that's what I'm interested in, here) is a lot more ambiguous. I would say that Cassius's ambition is envisioned as entirely destructive, but Caesar's ambition (and he clearly is ambitious...well, it's not altogether clear that he deserved to die for it, IMO. And what of Brutus? I read it that Rome would have been better off had he been more, not less, ambitious. (The same, by the way, with Hamlet -- and I don't agree that Gertrude is about ambition at all).

    All of which brings to mind my favorite discussion question about that particular play: Why is it called "The Tragedy of Julius Caesar"?

  13. We don't have to speculate about Taft's ambition with respect to the Supreme Court, as he was one of the few potential nominees who actively campaigned on his own behalf. It's interesting that his success in advertising for himself did not encourage others to behave in similar fashion.

  14. Sorry, but this is a silly argument. Ambition exists so people shouldn't be concerned about ambition? Folks will always act unprincipled in pursuit of ambition so we should be ok with it? One can point to tens of justices throughout the lifetime of this country who got seats on the court without prostituting their every opinion to the pursuit of one. Taft's greatest wish throughout his life was to get a seat on the court, and he was one of the most effective administrators it ever had, yet that never stopped him from voicing unpopular opinions or butting heads with his political patrons. Warren was a pugnacious career politician before his appointment, Douglas the closest to a bomb throwing anarchist to ever sit the bench, Marshall a civil rights lawyer during the civil rights era and John Jay was involved in practically every controversy of the Revolutionary generation. One can be ambitious without sacrifices one's ideals, or keeping mum about them for the sake of appointment.

    You are right to say that such self-abnegation for the sake of power is to be expected, but to draw from that fact the conclusion that it should be rewarded, or that a president's choosing to reward it shouldn't be seen as problematic, is to pretend that pursuit is adequate reason for victory, and the proper place of ethics not to inform actions and decisions, but to be ignored.

  15. Shakespeare was a monarchist. Remember, his company was actually called 'The King's Men'. It's not surprising the he made the republicans the bad guys, and was sympathetic to Caesar's presumed monarchist ambitions.

  16. Julian,

    No, that's not what I'm saying, that since ambition exists we shouldn't worry about it. What I'm saying is that in an era in which ambitious people do certain things to be contenders for the Court, we shouldn't hold those things against any nominee. It's true that ambitious people in the past were appointed with very different backgrounds, but that's not who gets appointed now, and that shouldn't be held against the nominees.

    David T.

    Yes, Shakespeare liked kings, and legitimate ones. In my opinion, that doesn't preclude using Shakespeare to think more carefully about such things as ambition. I don't think it all shakes out to him liking legit kings and not liking those he sees as usurpers.


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