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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Continuity of the Mind

Today the National Convention of the Democratic Party nominated Senator Barack Obama as candidate for the election to the highest office in the United States. His campaign for candidacy took about two years. Though conditions and means have changed decisively, the challenges that have to be met by the hopefuls for this type of position have remained remarkably similar over the past millenium.

Roughly 800 years ago an ambitious young man set out from his home in the pursuit of the highest office of his nation. It was the beginning of a long campaign trail that took him thousands of miles across the land he aspired to govern, learning about differences in culture of a diverse people and gaining insights into their daily problems. The journey was cumbersome and needed elaborate organization. Several hundred aids accompanied him. They had to set up camp, see to his security, and prepare the next moves. His message had to go out. It had to resonate. He had to convey that he understood the people's needs and that, once elected, he was going to help them. The locals had to be entertained. Vast sums of money were spent. Promises were made. Though his journey was educational, the main purpose of the endeavor was to rally support for his cause. He had a powerful and influential opponent and needed the overwhelming endorsement from people of all walks of life in order to win.

He had the professional credentials. He was formally educated to stand up to the challenges of government. He was well prepared in public administration and law. He was fluent in the legal language of his time and proficient in several other languages. However, he needed to learn the language instrumental in his struggle for national leadership: German. The majority of the people in the nation spoke German. The members of the Electoral Council considered themselves German. They met in a German city to elect the new head of state and government, and they wanted a popular leader.

This was a great disadvantage for our candidate. He had grown up in Southern Italy. He was considered a minority, an outsider. His mother was Norman. Though his father was German, our candidate conversed poorly in the high language. A superb command of German was imperative. Therefore, he campaigned much in Germany and made a great effort to learn the language. Eventually, he mastered it so well that he could write poetry. His was a brilliant mind. He dazzled those who met him. He was gregarious, smart and engaging. His sophistication impressed. He had a great gift of endearment. He attained wide popularity, becoming known as the Kid from Apulia after his birthplace in Italy where he would continue to live for many years. Apulia is quite deforested and arid today. In the our candidate's time, the landscape could have easily resembled Turner's vision.

His popularity would eventually give our candidate the edge in the election. His opponent struck a rather dull pose, though he could impress with a fabled pedigree. He was the member of a Saxon dynasty, known as the Wolves. They counted several figures of worldwide acclaim in their ranks. Alas, the Saxon did not show much political skill, reveled in military prowess and was given to adventure. On election day, the Kid from Apulia carried the vote. Though the Council of Electors had only seven members, the effort on our candidate's part was tremendous. Three electors were clergy. Our candidate had a complicated relationship with the Church. He and the Holy See held diametrically opposed views on the separation of church and state and the prerogatives of the two branches. He was to assume a difficult position.

Although he became nominally head of the nation, his governance was riddled with problems. Revenue was hard to collect. Resources beyond his own were never certain. Any decision of national importance needed the support of powerful locals who pursued their own special interests. He spent much time on the road to negotiate support for his ideas. Alliances were ever shifting, and the Holy See never seized to challenge his claims to power. The struggle would consume much of his energy and almost cost him his life. But, ultimately the Kid from Apulia is not remembered for his political achievements, but for his scholarly writings, the poetry he left behind, and his philanthropy.

He founded one of the first universities in continental Europe, the University of Naples. He enjoyed falconry. Some of his accounts on falcon behavior and training are preserved. His modern-minded examination of the subject strikes today's reader in awe. This man was determined, yet flexible. He had excellent observation skills and a brilliant analytical mind. He kept his mind open, willing to learn and embrace the unanticipated and unknown. He understood that even the most powerful can ill afford ignorance. Hopefully, the next President of the United States will be blessed with such abilities.

Who was this man? His name was Frederic. He was crowned Frederic II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations in A.D. 1220. We do not know much about his looks. Some believe that the horseman statue in the Cathedral of Bamberg is sculpted in his likeness. We are left with a bronze of his beloved hunting companions and his writings about them. The bronze is on display at the Cloisters in New York City. Pages of his treatise on falcon behavior can be seen in the Vatican Library.

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