Know When To Say “When” 

This isn’t really the moment to defend Alberto Fujimori, and I’m not going to. The Peruvian president resigned last week, claiming he wouldn’t want anyone to think that he was the sort of person who was “only interested in power.” This from the man who “reinterpreted” his country’s constitution last spring in order to run for a third term of office (which the constitution explicitly forbids), then prevented his rival from appearing on state television during the campaign, then falsified the vote in order to ensure victory. While he was president, Fujimori at one point or another also dissolved the constitution and suspended the congress, fired numerous judges, and shut down TV stations.

Finally, this week a special Peruvian investigator will begin looking into accusations of presidential money laundering, corruption, bribery, and the possible theft of $18 million, which has allegedly been transferred to Japan. At the moment, Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants to Peru, has taken up effective political asylum in Tokyo, apparently relying on the absence of an extradition treaty between Japan and Peru. No, no one would think Fujimori to be particularly interested in power.

And yet, Fujimori could have been a great man. If he had chosen to resign not now but, say, four years ago, he could have been one of the developing world’s heroes, an international statesman, a president who figured in the history of his grateful country as one of its finest leaders. Imagine that he had relinquished power at the end of 1996: By then he had captured the leader of the Shining Path guerrilla movement, effectively destroying what would have been South America’s answer to the Khmer Rouge; he had ousted the Tupac Amaru terrorists from the Japanese Embassy in Lima and freed 71 hostages in a counterterrorist operation shown live around the world; he had reduced inflation from 2,300 percent to 140 percent; he had deregulated, decentralized, ended price controls, and brought Peru back into the international economy. Biographers were already talking of the “Peruvian Miracle.”

If only he had quit then, Fujimori would now be a hugely respected figure. He might not, perhaps, have possessed $18 million in illicit cash, but he would have earned as much money as he needed by advising and consulting and touring the world, picking up honorary degrees. There might have been stains on his record, but he would not now be hiding out in Tokyo, waiting for his angry countrymen to try him in absentia.

But then, Fujimori is hardly alone in not knowing when to resign. If true genius is knowing when to quit, then genius is thin on the ground at the moment. It seems, in fact, to be some kind of modern politicians’ disease, this catastrophic inability to resign. Americans are lucky in that their heads of state, if and when they ever get elected, do have to leave office after eight years; presidential term limits were a brilliant innovation—brought in, of course, after another great man, Franklin Roosevelt, overstayed his moment in history too. But look at Lech Walesa: Nobel Prize winner, anti-Communist hero, and the second-most famous Pole in the world after the pope. His ludicrous decision to stand as a candidate in Poland’s recent presidential elections ended in fiasco when he won less than 2 percent of the vote. Look at Boris Yeltsin, the man who brought down the Soviet Union: Had he not stayed on that extra term, lying in hospital while a small group of bankers ripped off his country, he might now be a real hero instead of a politician with a “mixed legacy.”

Look, for that matter, at Helmut Kohl, the titan who reunited Germany, ruled for more than a decade, and was finally ousted when his countrymen simply grew bored of him. Kohl now appears angered that these same countrymen want to know where he got millions of deutsche marks that he stashed away illegally on behalf of his Christian Democratic Party. But his corrupt behavior is also part of the same syndrome. Didn’t he realize that putting unregistered cash in secret Swiss bank accounts would destroy his reputation, earned after decades of effort? Didn’t he care?

Perhaps the problem is that reputations no longer have the same cachet. In a world where no one remembers anything for longer than about 10 minutes, where the only news is live news, and eventually the only books will be electronic books, “having a place in history” isn’t what it used to be. Or perhaps modern politicians, so carefully protected from all life’s little discomforts, so nicely cocooned in the world of private airplanes, VIP lounges, personal bodyguards, minuted meetings, specially prepared news cuttings, and state dinners are simply never told that it’s time to go.

It’s a great pity, because quitting well, at the right time and in the right manner, can rescue entire careers. You may not like very much about Gen. Augusto Pinochet, but it is hard to dispute the fact that his decision to leave power and prepare the ground for democracy was the correct way to go: Without that, he’d simply be another 20th-century monster. Quitting at the right time—Al Gore, take note—can also prepare the ground for a comeback later on: Look at the careers of Richard Nixon or Gen. Charles de Gaulle.

Alas, Fujimori has missed the boat. Interviewed in Japan yesterday, Fujimori was patting himself on the back for his “decisiveness” and was apparently pleased that he had “surprised” his countrymen. Too bad he didn’t think about surprise tactics earlier.