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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."

That "grit," of course, has always defined great leaders of democracies in times of crisis. Sometimes it is a display of ruthlessness that makes the squeamish turn away: Churchill
terror-bombing Germany to break the German will, Nixon bombing Hanoi and Haiphong on Christmas Day in 1972 in order to compel the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table.

At other times, it is a simple conviction of what to do in a great conflict that distinguishes great leaders from ordinary folk. Ronald Reagan, who was consistently underestimated before taking office and consistently underrated by liberal elites after leaving it, told his national security adviser Richard Allen, in their very first chat, what he wanted to see happen in the Cold War: "Here's my idea of our relations with Russia," he said. "We're going to win, and they're going to lose."

Barack Obama, of course, both campaigned and entered office with little or no "war-winning" discourse, describing his primary goal to be that of fixing America's domestic problems. But by the end of his time in office, Newell warns, Obama "will have been pulled, with lesser or greater reluctance, into various foreign hot spots."

What those "hot spots" are for democratic societies can vary from Lincoln's civil war to Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam to Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt's war against German fascism and Japanese militarism. Wars, however, have a way of defining not just leaders but the republics they govern in ways that can change the character of those republics. And in one of his longest and most insightful sections Newell focuses on the dilemmas that Athens faced in its struggle with Sparta during the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides' account of that conflict has drawn the attention of students of leadership in the West from Hobbes through Machiavelli and Theodore Roosevelt, who read The Peloponnesian War at least twice while in the White House, one of those times in the original Greek. He notes the tragic irony that the one man who had sufficient talent and grit to win the war, Alcibiades, was denied command of the expedition by the Athenians, who feared his vices might pervert his character against the Athenians themselves, whereas the man who advised against the Peloponnesian adventure, Nicias, was ultimately tasked with commanding it. It was a military disaster that brought about the surrender of Athenian democracy to the collectivist, militarist oligarchy of Sparta.

The Soul of a Leader has other virtues in addition to its insights into the survival struggles of an ancient democracy. Newell displays, again and again, some pithy phrasing that captures leaders (and spouses) who have been featured in recent American history. The electorate that brought to power Reagan, for example, "sensed that too many Democrats, for all their profession of populism, disliked capitalism, [and] looked down on the middle class as gas-guzzling, polyester-clad vulgarians." Elsewhere he writes that the "cheesiness and mock humble hayseed air of Carter's inaugural gave way to the splashy excess of Reagan's, a Gilded Age mélange of Versace-draped trophy wives."

There we have a vignette of Laura Bush as someone who "recalls Lady Byrd Johnson in her warmth and fortitude with none of the leathery Kate Hepburn salt-water and mackinaw briskiness of the president's mother, a true Northeastern matriarch." These brisk and vivid evocations of people, mood, and era are worth the price of the book itself.

Newell, however, is wise and refreshingly unpartisan in his dissection of both Reagan and Carter. The latter's masterstroke, in Newell's characterization, "was to try to reconcile the generations by making the political values of the Sixties generation seem to flow directly out of an older American tradition of Jeffersonian agrarian populism and distaste for the amoral Great Power realpolitik of the Old World--a cynicism engendered by the would-be Gaullist Nixon and his devious Metternich, Kissinger."

Unfortunately, as Newell makes clear, Carter's "evangelical zeal to purge and reform those who had chosen America as their ally" allowed "one of the most bloodthirsty totalitarian dictatorships in the 20th century"--Ayatollah Khomeini's theocrats--to come to power in Iran. Carter was a decent man but "bared his soul compulsively to America in a way that undercut his authority as a leader."

Newell sensibly avoids prognostications about America's future, or its likely future leaders. But in a survey of leadership that ranges from Alcibiades to Roosevelt, from Lincoln to Churchill and FDR, he illuminates the most pressing perennial question of democratic governance: How on earth do we get the leader we need?

David Aikman is the author, most recently, of  The Delusion of Disbelief.