Columbo Theory


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.  

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