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Greatness Quantified

The individual makes a difference in history.

Jun 1, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 35 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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The Soul of a Leader

Character, Conviction, and Ten Lessons in Political Greatness

by Waller R. Newell

HarperCollins, 352 pp., $25.99

It was just after his reelection in 1864 that Abraham Lincoln memorably said: "It has long been a grave question," he said on a cold November night in Washington, "whether any government, not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its existence in great emergencies."

Under Lincoln's leadership, of course, the American republic had survived its own "great emergency," the ordeal of the Civil War; it had--barely--maintained its liberties, and of course had survived intact. Another question, however, quickly pops up to follow Lincoln's: How can constitutional republics be sure that the leaders they thrust into power during "great emergencies" will "maintain" the republic rather than become its tyrant?

How can we be sure to raise a Lincoln rather than a Napoleon?

In this thoughtful, learned, and often witty book, Waller Newell addresses the issues of what democratic states look for when they search for leaders, and how qualities of character, intellect, conviction, and temperament sometimes balance each other, and sometimes do not. He also confronts the issue of what kinds of leadership are best suited to the particular seasons of a democratic nation's life.

A few pages into The Soul of a Leader, in a fascinating illustration of how art can flatter life, Newell describes the scene of actor Martin Sheen's appearance at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Sheen, who played President Jed Bartlet in The West Wing, a television series, is applauded by the conventioneers as though his character were a real figure on the American political scene. Of course, the Bartlet character is a wish-list of presidential qualities and pedigree as dreamed up by any imaginative Democratic political consultant: a New Englander of patrician background and New Hampshire governing experience, Nobel Prize winner in economics, Roman Catholic alumnus of Notre Dame, spouse of an attractive, slightly Dixieish thoracic surgeon. This TV-flattering-politics incident, however, raises enduring questions about the leadership that actually does rise to the surface in democratic societies.

In his introductory chapter--"What are we looking for in a leader?"--
Newell introduces the question of what Americans hope to find in a leader (including in his narrative the Martin Sheen/West Wing incident) and deals with some of the broad considerations of leadership that have come into play in recent presidential elections. He deals with charisma (a Max Weber coinage, by the way), with the cynicism that has polluted so much of the way we view leaders, and with the problematic issue of "character."

"Character counts," says Newell, making an obvious point. Yet he also fetches in the almost archaic notion of "honor." In a section entitled, "The Virtue that Dare Not Speak Its Name," Newell quotes Peter Berger's pithy observation about the view of honor held by American elites: "Honor occupies about the same place in contemporary usage as chastity. An individual asserting it hardly invites admiration and one who claims to have lost it is an object of amusement rather than sympathy."

Yet Newell notes how important honor was in Lincoln's political career, how in different ways it inspired Robert E. Lee, Theodore Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill. Honor, of course, has always been a central feature of reflections on leadership among thinkers in the Western tradition from Plato through Cicero, and onwards. Honor, or a desire for it, is one of the ingredients of ambition. And without ambition, no leader will rise above the humdrum and attempt to exercise great leadership.

Of course, Newell's book is topical in that it was published just after the latest presidential election when, in Newell's view, a generational change in politics was taking place. For the first time a candidate--Barack Obama--had been shaped by neither World War II
nor the Cold War. "Obama," Newell says, "is articulate and exudes a natural grace in public perhaps not seen since John F. Kennedy"--to whom, of course, Obama is frequently compared. Newell acknowledges Obama's "real magic .  .  .when he speaks," but notes that, unlike Kennedy, who was a genuine war hero and elected three times to the House and twice to the Senate, Obama as a candidate was "mainly a candidate of abstract nouns--peace, hope, change, the future--that leave one in doubt about a strong sense of purpose or the grit of his inner personality."