ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
There is a word that's always bandied about during a political campaign, but almost never uttered by the candidates themselves - Machiavellian. Google that word with Obama or Clinton or McCain, and you'll get over 100,000 hits for each with bloggers and pundits weighing in on how apt the description might be. The word implies underhanded or sneaky attempts to gain and keep power.
But as Rick Kleffel of member station KUSP reports, that definition might be unfair too.
RICK KLEFFEL: Nearly 500 years ago, an exiled ex-politician named Niccolo Machiavelli wrote "The Prince," a little book of advice for those who would set out to conquer other countries. Almost instantly, his name became a synonym for political scheming, and it remains so to this day.
Peter Constantine recently translated Machiavelli's most infamous work.
Mr. PETER CONSTANTINE (Author; Translator, "The Essential Writings of Machiavelli"): I think very many people who use the word Machiavellian don't quite know what - well, they know what it means, but maybe not its long etymology, where it came from; how it happened to be.
KLEFFEL: Machiavelli's work was widely censored before it was translated and, Peter Constantine says, condemned before it was clearly understood.
Mr. CONSTANTINE: People had heard that there was this incredible book that was forbidden. It took quite a few decades for it to come. So Machiavellian, the term Machiavellian was definitely in high use in the English language before anyone had read the book in English.
KLEFFEL: Shakespeare wrote "The Merry Wives of Windsor" in 1602, about 80 years after Machiavelli wrote "The Prince," but decades before it was translated. In this scene from the play, the political and moral implications of the name are made clear.
(Soundbite of play, "The Merry Wives of Windsor")
Unidentified Man #1: I hear mine host of the Garter. Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?
Unidentified Man #2: No.
Unidentified Man #1: Should I lose my doctor? No, he gives me the potions of emotion.
Mr. CONSTANTINE: So, Machiavellian had become the slangy, withered expression of the time for something that's evil and who manipulates a situation in order to get what he wants.
KLEFFEL: Machiavelli was not simply a political writer. Italian studies professor Albert Ascoli describes him as a skilled literary stylist who deliberately courted controversy.
Professor ALBERT ASCOLI (Italian Studies, University of California, Berkeley): Irony and sarcasm, these are Machiavelli's tools. I mean, of course, he realizes that virtually every precept that he gives — or many of them — are going to be understood to be comic inversions of the accepted wisdom about things.
KLEFFEL: As we hear in this passage.
Prof. ASCOLI: (Through translator) This raises the question whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the contrary. My reply is that one would like to be both; but it is difficult to combine love and fear. If one has to choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.
KLEFFEL: Machiavelli's "The Prince" was written in a time of political upheaval. He used direct language and dry humor to address the problems one could expect when setting out to overthrow an existing state.
According to Professor Ascoli, Machiavelli was a scrupulous satirist, describing, not advocating, a form of political behavior.
Prof. ASCOLI: Machiavellian doesn't describe Machiavelli himself very well, and I would say it also doesn't describe his books very well.
KLEFFEL: Machiavelli's "The Prince" is purposely ambiguous. One can read it as black humor or sage advice. But while Machiavelli's work is open to interpretation, his name, especially when used by a politician, will have a very specific and very negative connotation — as it has for centuries.
For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.