The Magazine

Greatness Quantified

The individual makes a difference in history.

Jun 1, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 35 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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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.