What is it about politics that makes some people lose all perspective?
Today's two examples come from near -- and far.
In the United States, we have Exhibit A, also known as Newt Gingrich.
Exhibit B comes from Afghanistan: one Hamid Karzai.
Gingrich wants to be president, but he has no shot. Karzai is a president, but if he's not careful, he will be shot.
Of course, one doesn't enter politics without a healthy -- some might say overinflated -- ego. The best politicians are, by nature, risk-takers. Where others hold back, they charge ahead. It takes them to great heights sometimes but also brings great falls: see Clinton, Bill, and Nixon, Richard.
(Thursday brought another reminder: Former Illinois Gov. Rod Rod Blagojevich left Chicago for Colorado, where he'll be serving a sentence on corruption charges in federal prison.)
And ego certainly applies to Gingrich. Times staff writer Paul West on Thursday summed up Gingrich's motivation for staying in the GOP presidential race:
At 68, the former House speaker is making what figures to be his last fling at elective politics. But it is his sense of himself as an epic figure that may well be what's keeping him going.
Gingrich hopes for a brokered convention, something that hasn't happened for decades but that appeals to the historian in him. It may be a figment of his imagination, but it's a harmless fantasy -- unless you're Mitt Romney and hoping to wrap up the nomination.
Karzai, on the other hand, is playing a much more dangerous game. On Thursday, Times staff writer Laura King reported from Kabul that the Afghan president "had demanded a quicker end to the Western combat mission and a pullback of NATO troops from rural areas."
Karzai's office said he told visiting Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that by year's end, U.S. troops should be garrisoned only in large bases, abandoning outposts in rural districts like Panjwayi, the scene of Sunday's shooting deaths.
"Afghanistan's security forces have the capability to provide security in the villages of Afghanistan," said a statement from Karzai's office.
Which makes one wonder what country Karzai thinks he's living in. Especially because the Taliban announced Thursday that not only was it suspending talks with the United States on the war but that it would be "pointless" to engage in any talks with the Karzai government.
The president also called for a significant acceleration of the handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces, saying NATO should wind down its combat role in 2013 instead of 2014. "Our demand is to speed up this process, and authority should be given to Afghans," the presidential palace's statement said.
Perhaps Karzai could take a lesson from Gingrich and read up on his history. Here's a name he might want to check out: Najibullah.
After the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, Najibullah was president. Forced from office during the ensuing civil war, Najibullah took refuge in the U.N. compound in Kabul for four years. But in 1996, the Taliban seized power.
A Times' story from Friday Sept. 27, 1996, records his fate:
The bloated, beaten body of the man who also once headed the hated Afghan Communists' security service was strung up from a lamppost outside the presidential palace, reports said.
The Times' Doyle McManus wrote Thursday that given recent events, President Obama needs a Plan C for getting out of Afghanistan. So Karzai may get his wish for a sped-up withdrawal.
But if that's the case, Karzai's name just might end up listed next to Najibullah's in the history books of the 21st century.
-- Paul Whitefield
Photo: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, meets with Afghan President Hamid Karza in Kabul on Thursday. Credit: Mohammad Ismail / EPA