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12:00 AM, Jul 22, 1996 • By PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER
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NO biographer or historian has yet quite captured the greatness of Charles de Gaulle. Daniel J. Mahoney's De Gaulle: Statesmanship, Grandeur, and Modern Democracy (Praeger, 188 pages, $ 45) takes a new approach. It is an extraordinarily penetrating and original study of de Gaulle as political thinker.

To appreciate this book, Americans must overcome their understandable prejudice against de Gaulle. Even as we are moved by the French general's proud resistance to Hitler in the name of national honor, we note the absurdities: During the war, de Gaulle insisted on being treated as the equal of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin although the French contributed little to the Nazis' defeat. And after the war, President de Gaulle's political judgment was clouded by unrealistic pretensions for both France and himself. He grandly but foolishly denied the fact of his nation's greatly reduced and declining place in the world, its dependence on the United States for defense and on an increasingly united Europe for its political and economic future. This posturing irritated American presidents, who saw his usefulness as an anti-Communist ally compromised by his French chauvinism and anti-Americanism.

In this age of cosmopolitan interdependence, such nationalism is seen as reactionary; in some quarters, the very idea of the nation seems obsolete. We can scarcely distinguish between Gaullism and Buchananism -- and if anything view the latter as the more reasonable. Buchanan says that Americans should be responsible for America first; de Gaulle saw the greatness of France as the acceptance of European and global responsibilities. By now, even the French have lost interest in the Gaullist obsession with France's independence and status.

Mahoney shows that this analysis is itself distorted by American chauvinism. In fact, de Gaulle was not particularly anti-American, and he favored an integrated Europe of distinct nations. He was a thoroughgoing anti-Communist, even if he failed to appreciate the extent to which Soviet leaders were motivated by ideology.

But more than a treatment of these well-known aspects of de Gaulle's career, Mahoney has written a work of political reflection. His astounding claim is that de Gaulle's books and speeches, analyzed in the light of his deeds, are a source of profound insight, not only into political life but into the human condition. To make his case, Mahoney must overcome our prejudice against the truth and relevance of the statesman's view of morality and politics.

Mahoney succeeds wonderfully. He shows that only a theoretically self- conscious person genuinely committed to political and religious responsibility could comprehend the need to do justice to all the diverse and sometimes contradictory facets of human liberty. De Gaulle's thought is full of complex and nuanced ambivalence, which he maintained without indecisiveness. He never stopped thinking about the greatness of France, but he understood his nation's duty to be the defense of a way of life more properly called European or Western. His idea of France is contained within his idea of European civilization.

De Gaulle affirmed the unparalleled freedom and prosperity of modern democracy but despised its tendency toward mindless materialism and standardization. He had some of the haughtiness and contempt for ordinary life that Aristotle and Nietzsche associated with great leadership, and he felt the lonely burden that comes with the conviction of one's unrivaled political greatness. But he also had an undeniable concern for the souls of the individuals for whom he was responsible. His belief in the dignity of the individual and an egalitarian understanding of justice directed and limited de Gaulle's proud individuality and saved him from any temptation toward the radical self-reliance of the Nietzschean superman. De Gaulle's aristocratic reflections on his own indispensability and personal excellence were moderated by his genuine devotion to the democratic constitutionalism that is the political consequence of the truth of Christianity. He rejected the pagan and modern lie that the creativity of great leaders is the source of all order and nobility.