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Aired in 2006 on KERA FM

Why is it that some artists or leaders last a lifetime in their work while others burn out too soon? It seems to me that the answer may lie in the quest for too narrow an excellence at the expense of too many parts of the personality, pared away in pursuit of an impossible purity.

Brancusi, the great sculptor, did no work at all during the last 20 years of his life. He was trying too hard, I believe, to be a saint, and the strain was too great. You have to have a little profanity, like Picasso, who was productive right to the end of a long life. Sibelius wrote seven glorious symphonies, then spent 30 years trying to write an 8th. He was trying too hard for an inner unity, and the strain was too great.

The same thing happened to the writer Virginia Woolf. At the time of her suicide, in 1941, when she was 59, her creative powers were beginning to wane. That was one of the reasons for her suicide, but not the only reason. Her creative powers, were waning, I suspect, because she was trying too hard in her fiction to achieve the One, the One True Thing as Anna Quinlan would say. And the strain was too great for a personality as complex as that of Virginia Woolf.

Margaret Thatcher, when she became prime minister of Britain in 1979, had as her most important strength a coherence of upbringing, education, thinking and policy. But this became a liability toward the end of her tenure when it made her too inflexible to deal with the demands of a unifying Europe.

Is the same thing happening to George W. Bush in his single-minded search for democracy? Elections have yielded unfortunate results in Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, and now, the Palestinian Authority. They may not have delivered all that we want in Iraq either. Yet Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, speaking, no doubt, for the president, remains convinced that elections are the only antidote to trouble in the Middle East, even when they’re generating more trouble. “There is a huge transition going on in the Middle East, she said. “The outcomes that we’re seeing in any number of places. . .have a sense of unpredictability about them. That’s the nature of big historic change.”

But is it possible to become addicted to “big historic change” when a little gradualism would do? Carl Bildt, a Swedish diplomat, observed that we have to be heard to say these things about democracy. It’s important to encourage people in the trenches of difficult nations. But just as Jimmy Carter learned that he couldn’t push human rights, however desirable, beyond certain limits, so is the administration learning, or should be learning, that it can go only so far with its project to democratize the world, and especially, the Middle East.

It’s better to promote democracy in countries like Ukraine that had a credible, responsible opposition before the elections of late 2004, than in nations where antagonists of the sitting regime are animated mainly by the fever of anti-Americanism.

The realist perspective is not as romantic as that of President Bush, and of course, romance is wonderful. But few nations actually organize their lives around it. Those who try usually bump into some unpleasant surprises.