A man lights a candles in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw April 10, 2010. Reuters

It often appears that the policies of an elected official differ significantly from those espoused by the same person when running for office. Does this reflect a betrayal of principles, hypocrisy, or something endemic to the political process? While this phenomenon is present to varying degrees in modern America, it may be worthwhile to examine an extreme example from the past.

Joseph Pilsudski, the "father of Polish independence," was born in 1867 in the Russian Empire. At that time, Poland did not officially exist, having been partitioned by her German and Russian neighbors in 1795. Like many disaffected youths living under the iron grip of the czar, Pilsudski gravitated to socialism. In addition to social justice, socialism offered a uniform program of resistance to authority. In his mind, socialism became interconnected with Polish liberation.

In 1887, the teenage idealist was arrested for his participation in a plot to kill the czar and was sent to Siberia. Years in the frozen tundra only served to radicalize the young Pole further, and he returned from exile to become leader of the outlawed socialist party in Russian Poland.

After a decade of publishing an underground newspaper that extolled the virtues of socialism and advocated Polish independence, Pilsudski was again arrested. By feigning insanity for almost a year -- a ploy that facilitated his transfer to a mental institution -- he managed to escape. He spent the next 14 years in the socialist underground, publishing anti-czarist manifestos and organizing terrorist (or freedom-fighting, depending on the perspective) activities.

When WWI erupted, Pilsudski convinced Hapsburg authorities to allow him to lead a group of ethnic Poles, dubbed the Polish Legions, against the Russians. The underground revolutionist suddenly found himself part of the establishment as an Austrian general. But after the czar was deposed in 1917, Pilsudski refused to fight for the Central Powers because they no longer served the cause of Polish independence. He spent the final year of the war in a German prison. Pilsudski returned to Warsaw on November 10, 1918, whereby public acclamation he became leader of the resurrected Polish state.

One of the first delegations to meet with the new head of state was a group of socialists, some former colleagues from his underground days. When his old friends greeted him with the socialist title "comrade," Pilsudski quickly corrected them, saying, "Gentlemen, I am no longer your comrade. In the beginning we followed the same direction, and took the tramway painted red, but I left it at the station -- Poland's Independence."

The rebuke was wildly disappointing to his socialist friends, who believed that a Marxist revolution in Poland would need only a wave of Pilsudski's hand. Right-wing groups also found him unreceptive to their charms, and were concerned that his leftist radicalism might resurface.

But Pilsudski, now burdened with the responsibility of rule, was more interested in a viable Polish state than ideology. He admitted being "afraid because many heavy burdens will be laid upon me, and I shall have to achieve practical things, which will not always be understood, which will make me unpopular."

Ignoring complaints, he worked with both sides to establish a parliamentary republic. Pilsudski retired from public life in 1923, but soon became disgusted with the political infighting, rampant corruption, and mismanagement that characterized the new republic. In 1926 he returned to power in a military coup.

The left supported the coup -- until they were again shocked that he refused to establish a socialist state as in the neighboring USSR and merely appointed a new cabinet and amended the constitution. He even made overtures to the right, including a guarantee of property rights and a rapprochement with the Catholic Church.

Pilsudski would rule Poland for the next nine years, and while he retained many democratic institutions, in many ways he became a mirror image of the authoritarian leaders he had so despised as a youth. He struggled to balance individual freedom with the governmental controls necessary for collective security, and found that responsibility and idealism are uncomfortable companions, often with divergent demands.

Was Pilsudski's "evolution" a betrayal of his youth, or did it reflect other factors? While he supported some socialist policies throughout his life, he considered its more radical tenants simply a means to an end. Like Pilsudski, many Poles embraced socialism only during their time in the wilderness as a means of national liberation. Post-World War II, the Soviets found Poles resistant to socialism because it was, in that context, a means of national subjugation.

While Pilsudski was on the journey toward realizing his dream of Polish independence, he was immersed in idealism, unencumbered by the responsibility of rule, and relatively immune from more practical matters. As leader of the Polish nation, responsible for its continued existence, he was faced with the nauseating reality of daunting social, economic, and national security problems, and was often forced to compromise with his opponents and choose between the lesser of two evils.

One man's "idealism" is often another's "extremism," and these traits seem to be more prevalent in those out of power. In fact, radicalism often serves a higher purpose; enthusiasm for a "lost cause" can sometimes only be sustained by a militant constituency. The challenge is how to moderate destructive aspects of radicalism after gaining power.

Rather than dismissed as a lack of character, it should be recognized that those seeking power often have a different perspective, and hence policies, from those exercising power. Those seeking power tend to be more "idealistic" and extreme while, for a myriad of reasons, the policies of those in power gravitate towards "realistic" and moderate. It is true that some have managed to strictly adhere to their idealistic principles, but this is not necessarily a good thing, as they are as likely to be a Hitler as a Gandhi.

While fundamental beliefs, integrity, and consistent goals should be required of politicians, let's acknowledge that applying idealistic principles to an imperfect world is problematic. Are politicians really hypocrites if they fail to meet utopian expectations? Should perspective affect policy? Do we really want our elected officials to be strict ideologues -- or would we prefer a man like Pilsudski, one who tempered his idealism to achieve a practical end?

Peter Hetherington is the author of Unvanquished: Joseph Pilsudski, Resurrected Poland and the Struggle for Eastern Europe , winner of the 2012 Independent Book Publishers Association's Ben Franklin Award in history. Unvanquished ($18) is available at amazon.com.