Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Where Great Leaders Come From

Put him in power, and who knows what he'll do?

A generation ago, Ronald Reagan was president in the US; Margaret Thatcher was PM in Britain; and John Paul II was in charge at the Vatican. All three generally acknowledged as great leaders. How did we happen to get all three at once? And, by comparison, nobody of comparable stature since?

This is not the first time this question has come up in my lifetime. In the seventies, people were feeling about the same way. A generation of great leaders had passed on, and nobody of comparable stature had appeared since. Churchill, FDR, De Gaulle, Tito, Nehru, Kenyatta, Adenauer, Ben-Gurion, had all been in power at the same time.

Then suddenly, just when we had despaired of it all, along came a new wave of greats.

How come? And why do great leaders seem to come in waves? The answer seems to be that they are always available, but rarely reach power. Churchill, for example, was always there, and well-known, but never put in charge. Politics as usual does not produce the best leaders, because politics is the art of compromise. It produces able tacticians, deft compromisers, but not men or women of vision. Yet vision is what is needed for true leadership. Warren G. Harding, Neville Chamberlain; these are the solid compromise choices.

It takes a time of crisis for the ordinary math to be set aside. People need to be desperate to give someone strong the helm. Of course, this does not always work out well; but when it does, it does.

A striking resemblance to Meryl Streep.

World War II threw up a good share of strong leaders. So did the independence movements that followed. Then things were going well, and there was no need for strong leaders. The Churchills were left painting and bricklaying. The crisis of separatism in Quebec threw up Pierre Trudeau; perhaps a mixed blessing. The crisis of stagflation in the Seventies threw up Thatcher and Reagan. The crisis in the Catholic Church following Vatican II threw up JPII. They went on, once in command, of course, to win the Cold War into the bargain. But it first has to get bad, for anyone to take the risk of putting them in power.

With all respect to our American cousins, I have always thought that the Westminster system was better for this task of putting the best leader in power when needed. If the times call for a certain man, the matter can be accomplished in Britain in a matter of days, as it was with Churchill. In the US, you have to hang on until the next scheduled election, and hope the country holds together by dumb luck until then.

Fighting them on the beaches.

Which brings us to the present. The prolonged period of recession, the ongoing financial crisis, the US’s growing debt, seems to suggest that this is a time when people might again turn to strong leaders, for good and ill. Ted Cruz, for one, seems to fit the bill in the US. Maybe also Rand Paul. In the UK, this is why Nigel Farage is making such inroads. Since Jack Layton died, I cannot think of any comparably commanding figures on the left. But it is a bad time to be middle-of-the-road. The usual logic of seizing the centre, I suspect, does not currently apply.

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