In college I developed the “Columbo Theory of History.” In retrospect, it isn’t actually a theory really, but it has come back to me bit. At the time I was watching a lot of Columbo mysteries and could even do a halfway decent impression. I also obtained a worn-out used raincoat and of course being disheveled came naturally. This was odd, but I went to a college with a particularly high percentage of people wearing enormous Dr. Who scarves, so on the weird scale I was far lower then I would have been in the outside world.
I happened to read Keegan’s The Mask of Command about great military leaders. Keegan profiles Alexander the Great as the classical hero, Duke of Wellington as the anti-hero, U.S. Grant as the un-hero, and Hitler as the false hero. In episodes of Columbo, the villians are always dramatic, charming, and creative figures. While Columbo had his charm, he also slowly worked through the case driven by duty and persistence. I began to see these generals this way as well. Napoleon was a world historic figure – larger then life in every respect but physique. Wellington was merely a humble servant of the crown. But he worked hard and was an individual gifted with enormous powers of calculation and analysis. Keegan mentions Wellington obsessively studying how French armies marched and thereby identifying the perfect moment to launch an attack. Of course the comparison between Grant and Lee fits the mold almost perfectly. Lee was a handsome, brave, aristocrat, and a tremendous military talent. Grant was plain, simple, and had been a failure in civilian life. In one respect, the comparison is imperfect – Grant and Wellington were taciturn where Columbo was loquacious.
This extends beyond generals. I heard from an academic who traveled regularly to Egypt and met with Muslim Brotherhood leaders who remarked that Mohammed Morsi was just about the last figure he would have predicted would end up leading Egypt. He was far less dynamic then the other Brotherhood leaders. But sometimes the patient and driven succeed where the charismatic fail.
Columbo types aren’t necessarily good guys. No Kremlin-watcher after Lenin died would have predicted the rise of Stalin. There were many other, far more impressive figures in the Politburo such at Trotsky, Kamenev, and Bukharin. But it was Stalin – physically and intellectually dwarfed by these other figures who patiently (and brutally) clawed his way to the top.
Vice Presidents & Colombo
I am writing about Martin Van Buren now. Even a close ally described him as unable “to inspire respect.” He served in the glory days of the Senate – which was dominated by such giants as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. All of them lusted for the Presidency. But it was Van Buren who achieved it.
Van Buren had faced giants before, battling for control of New York state with Governor Clinton – another larger then life figure. Earlier in his career Van Buren recognized that oratory was over-rated and invested his efforts into timing and maneuver.
Other vice presidents who have found the job congenial have been careful, detail oriented sidekicks to more dramatic figures.
Just One More Thing
In the case of president-VP relations, the metaphor seems to fit. Van Buren, Truman, and Bush Senior all appeared diminished in the shadow of their predecessor. The only vice president who clearly outshone his predecessor after becoming president was Theodore Roosevelt who was a bit of a classic hero (Jefferson was vice president but he was not Adams’ vice president – he was from the opposing party.)
Of course, Grant, after his victories became an renown personage - when he first came to Washington DC as general, rooms fell to a hush when he entered. He became the hero, just as on TV it was ultimately Columbo for whom the audience was rooting.
OK, so it isn’t a theory – but it is an interesting illustration, a way of seeing things.