Power Behind the Throne

Why are advisers to men of power—the vizir, the counselor, the chief of staff—such shifty figures? From Haman to Iago to Rasputin to Cheney, the adviser is often depicted as the source of evil, rot, and decay. Is this just a way of preserving the myth of the good king, corrupted by the whisperer in his ear? Or is there something suspicious and untrustworthy about someone who would subsume his fate to the fortune of a king? Or hide his power behind the power of another? Perhaps that makes a man, in the traditional view, too much like a woman, too much like a wife? Perhaps that’s why such figures are sometimes treated as sexually ambiguous, gender-bending freaks of power, and why characters like Lady Macbeth are conscripted to play the roles that they play?


  1. s. wallerstein July 24, 2016 at 8:46 pm | #

    Elected politicians, in my experience, are generally people without many ideas about policies or long-term goals. They are people who have the gift of inspiring confidence in others, because of their tone of voice, their appearance, their charisma, their body language, etc.

    So they need someone with a sense of strategy and who is a bit Machiavellian to feed them ideas and slogans and to tell them what to say and when to say it. Thus, the adviser, from the word “go”, is a schemer, because he or she is telling the principal actor, the elected politician, what he or she needs to say to get elected or re-elected. If the adviser does not scheme correctly, he or she is out of a job.

    This allows elected politicians to maintain an aura of purity (after all, they are not the schemers) and a rather ridiculous claim to having clean hands.

  2. bystander July 24, 2016 at 8:59 pm | #

    As one old-time community organizer explained it to me… There are pols and there are pros; politicians and professionals. The pols are the “window dressing” (have curb appeal, as you suggest) and take the credit. The pros do the “work” and try to make the pol look good. I don’t know that all pros are schemers; but if tactical and power-vector analysis is considered scheming, perhaps they all are.

  3. xenon2 July 24, 2016 at 9:09 pm | #

    How could you even think of voting for #nohillary?
    I realize this belongs more ‘Tim Kaine, and….’ but
    I was listening to a conference.

    #nohillary will be her own ‘adviser’.
    She will do favors for friends, who
    will donate to The Clinton Foundation.

    She is pure evil.

  4. John Maher July 24, 2016 at 9:54 pm | #

    It is an adaptive behavioral mechanism designed to facilitate either or both survival and agency, which may be mutually dependent The historicity of the vizier gets larded with cultural signifiers. No?

  5. Roqeuntin July 24, 2016 at 9:58 pm | #

    This got me thinking, one of the best political essays I ever read was this description of the Thai monarchy and Thaksin. This essay so enthralled me that I spent an entire hour at work reading it when I should have been doing other things. I simply couldn’t stop. He refers to the actual ruling body in Thailand as the “Network Monarchy.”


    It’s been a long time since I read it in its entirety, but the way he talked about different people allying themselves with certain members of the royal family is something I’ll never forget.

  6. jonnybutter July 24, 2016 at 10:34 pm | #

    The clip is hilarious and exemplary. The hollywood version of this character is always the same! The simpering, effete, sinister murmurer behind the throne finally gets smacked right in the kisser by the regular guy-hero – ‘HERE’S my argument, weasel! BAM!’; the murmurer’s hair gets mussed ridiculously (like in this clip); and naturally, instead of fighting back like any normal red-blooded, he wanly wipes his slightly bloody mouth the same EXACT way, a little shocked that he bleeds, as we in the audience also are shocked. “your fists are very eloquent, kemosabe’

  7. Lindsay Brown July 24, 2016 at 11:09 pm | #

    And then there’s the Grima Wormtongue type, who only appears to serve the king but secretly serves another power. This figure may be quite common.

  8. fosforos17 July 24, 2016 at 11:34 pm | #

    But then, Mazarin and Richelieu are not thought of that way (Rasputin is, but very unjustly). And then there’s that bourgeois revolutionary two-centuries-before-his-time Thomas Cromwell…

  9. Bram Boroson July 25, 2016 at 12:15 am | #

    As long as you’re doing fiction… Game of Thrones likes to buck the trend. Ned Stark as the “Hand of the King” is definitely not a shifty figure, and there is nothing suspicious or untrustworthy about him. Varys might be considered a gender-bending and ambiguous freak, and Tyrion Lannister is a freakish dwarf, but they are not reviled by the show.

    • Gregory Harris July 25, 2016 at 2:10 pm | #

      And that is exactly why Ned is framed for the murder of Robert Baratheon and executed at the request of *Queen mother* Cersei (I mean her son, the sadistic but unstrategic King Geoffrey).

  10. kaleberg July 25, 2016 at 12:37 am | #

    The advisers are usually portrayed as shifty because that protects the reputation of the man with the actual power. There are a number of theories about this. It might have been a result of laws against calling the ruler anything other than wonderful, but not protecting the advisor. Alternately, it offered some hope. Maybe, if Haroun al Rashid disguised himself and learned the truth, he would make things better. It’s like the Book of Esther where Haman, the adviser takes all the crap, but the damned king was murdering his wives and encouraging pogroms as a matter of policy.

    Surely, we all know that the Cossacks work for the tsar.

    Still, it makes for some great movies. Granted, Star Wars did it in reverse.

  11. Raven Onthill July 25, 2016 at 3:56 am | #

    Kissinger is the obvious example. But held power by catering to Nixon’s paranoia.

    Another aspect, not Kissinger, are the honorable servants of a corrupt matter. Consider Colin Powell. But W Bush was a great corrupter.

  12. mark July 25, 2016 at 4:01 am | #

    Isn’t it more likely that a powerful person, having the power, then hires people around them to do the dirty work:

    “Two decades ago Rupert Murdoch was sitting at his desk in Wapping as a financial firestorm engulfed his company. The banks were baying at the door. A lethal mix of over-ambition and heavy investment in the nascent BSkyB had laid News Corporation low. Rupert said to me: “Not sure how this is going to end … just in case, I’ve paid up my mortgages.”

    I nodded sagely. But as I wandered down the executive corridor back to my beloved Sun, I literally came out in a cold sweat; if Rupert was going bust, who was going to pay my mortgage?” (Kelvin MacKenzie, 30 June 2011).

    • Raven Onthill July 25, 2016 at 4:31 am | #

      It’s not as simple as that. They feed on each other. Nixon would have been far less effective without Kissinger, and Bush II without Cheney.

  13. stevenjohnson July 25, 2016 at 7:57 am | #

    It is very likely that the negative personal characteristics attributed are assigned to advisers because they are unpopular, not that they are unpopular because they are bad characters. Seeing unpopular advisers as effeminate etc. goes along with effeminacy because effeminacy etc. is disdained. And because lots of people get their ideas from literature and drama and this sort of thing is a minor tradition. (AKA “trope,” in popular usage.)

    It seems likely advisers would be safer targets for resentments of unpopular policies than the boss. And they would be unpopular because they are the actual persons to say no to petitioners. And they would be targets for those who would be their replacements. As to whether any real people thought that getting rid of the bad advisers such as eunuchs at the emperor’s court in China, was really removing the corruption, or whether they knew they were removing the king’s tools for his will?

  14. Rolf Wiegand July 25, 2016 at 11:37 am | #

    I’m pretty sure Machiavelli would endorse the strategy of seeking to be “the power behind the throne”. The self-effacement required for such a strategy is not a respected quality in American culture; but it can be very effective, to wit Dirty Dick Cheney.

  15. Gavolt July 25, 2016 at 12:59 pm | #

    There is also a class element to this observation. Or at least there is in popular depictions. Because the vizier is often a kind of upstart. Now he pals around with the elites, the nobility, or whatever, but that’s not where he came from originally. Usually he comes from a middle class or even poor background. He wasn’t made for power; he forced his way there.

    There is a difference between how the king wields his power and how the vizier does. The king is free, almost casual is his use of power. He’s calm, surprisingly ego-less, and he doesn’t much sweat the little things.

    Contrast this to the vizier. He has a microscopic eye for the details of state. He’s ego-centric, ambitious, even sleepless in the way he ferrets out opportunities to use his power. But he isn’t profligate with his power. In fact, he is easily accused of being rather stingy with it. (And of course he’s effeminate. If this were 85 years ago, he’d be Jewish as well).

    This situation mirrors the conflict between capitalism and feudalism. But, interestingly, it is from the feudalist perspective. It has a romantic eye toward the old nobility (Marx points out that this is wrong, and that the bourgeois capitalists are totally correct to say that the nobility were not great at all and were in fact worthless parasites) and a dark look at the new bourgeois ruling class. That’s interesting because of the prevalence of this type of depiction even in the US where we aren’t supposed to have this sort of sensibility, having never gone through a proper feudal period in our country.

  16. RBethany July 25, 2016 at 1:11 pm | #

    What struck me about the leaked DNC emails was that Hillary Clinton and her campaign weren’t at all complicit (the DNC staffers even complain about the reluctance of the Clinton campaign to join in their attacks on Sanders). How did Clinton so effectively “outsource” her skulduggery – not just to an aide but to someone else’s aide – without lifting a finger? The ready-made answer would be along the lines of “ideological complicity”, but I wonder if the question about “why is it always the advisers” might open up a better way of looking at it.

  17. Edward July 25, 2016 at 4:06 pm | #

    The U.S. government is in trouble over the role of advisors– especially congress. Apparently these days members of congress usually do not bother to read the legislation they vote on. Much legislation is now written by lobbyists (!) and the congressional work week is three days long. The Obama administration has appointed lobbyists to important positions.


    “I, Claudius” had some delicious advisor intrigue.

  18. monicka July 26, 2016 at 6:36 pm | #

    there’s a great section on this in Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death. The eunuch and the liminal black domestic servant get cast as advisers to princes. Patterson offers a compelling rationale as to why.

  19. kwp July 27, 2016 at 10:57 am | #

    I don’t think Iago fits your pattern of examples. Othello, and to a lesser extent Iago himself, was successful in the military sphere, but the tragedy of the play is in the personal. Moreover, the tragedy of the play is in how even a man such as Othello is subject to his own passions and humors (a Renaissance-specific conception). Closer, I think, to your idea would be Richard III, Edmund from King Lear, and maybe Cassius. But they counsel themselves as well as others.

    Is it possible this is a relatively modern construction?

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