Overrated Leaders of the 20th Century

Image by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

There’s no question that the quality of leadership in today’s Western societies has declined precipitously. Nearly a century ago, H.L. Mencken famously said of Calvin Coolidge:

Democracy is that system of government under which people, having 60,000,000 native-born adults to choose from, including thousands who are handsome and many who are wise, pick out a Coolidge to be head of state. It is as if a hungry man, set before a banquet prepared by master cooks and covering a table an acre in area, should turn his back upon the feast and stay his stomach by catching and eating flies.

Just imagine what H.L. Mencken would say about Donald Trump!

Yes, Calvin Coolidge was a plain man, of plain accomplishments, who gained the Presidency by chance. And yet when you consider the humble, industrious character of the man, he towers above men like Donald Trump. If you read his simple speeches when he was the Governor of Massachusetts, the contrast with Presidents like Obama is clear. Coolidge was a plain man whose highest belief was a well run and efficient government that did some good, but most importantly, did no harm. In contrast, Presidents today have a compulsion to issue clarion calls, like Kennedy’s “. . . bear any burden . . . “ and Obama’s humble assertion that his selection “was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow.”

We need to be especially aware of accomplished, ambitious, and inspiring leaders.

When measured in terms of character and talent, recent presidents are pygmies compared to men like Churchill and John Paul II. In Churchill’s case, here was a man that was a legitimate winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, because of his unquestioned mastery of the English language. He was a competent artist, a soldier, a bricklayer. He knew war: he served in Afghanistan and South Africa, he killed enemy soldiers, and he was an escaped prisoner of war. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he planned the Gallipoli command, and when it failed he had enough of a sense of honor to resign his high office, go to France, and fight in the trenches with the unit he asked to command. He suffered a bitter defeat in the postwar election. But like his other defeats, he rose up again and served as Prime Minister again in the 1950s.

There’s no question that he inspired, but that’s the heart of the problem. 400,000 dead, with no benefit whatsoever to Britain. The cost of their victory was the loss of empire, an empire they could have kept intact if they had negotiated a settlement with Germany. The cause they fought for — the integrity of Poland — was quickly sacrificed because victory required an alliance with the Soviets, the other nation that invaded Poland. Churchill did not start the war — war was declared while Chamberlain was Prime Minister. But Churchill supported it, and he was the leader of those in May 1940 that wanted to fight on.

If, in May 1940, Britain had sued for peace, they could have kept their Navy, and their Empire. The U.S. could not have fought Germany without Britain, and so Germany and the Soviets would have fought until one side was completely defeated, leaving Britain just offshore of a united Europe. Europe may have been hostile, but the experience of the Cold War demonstrates that hostility does not always mean war. Britain and its Empire would have remained a major world power for decades more, with a strong economy, rather than the exhausted country she turned out to be.

I put John Paul II in that same class of leader. He was extraordinarily talented, fluent in five languages, a philosopher, theologian, a playwright. He was a manual laborer who risked imprisonment and death first under the Nazis, then the communists. With the possible exception of Theodore Roosevelt, there isn’t a single President with an equivalent resume of character, education and worldly experience.

And yet, John Paul II, as inspiring as he was, lost by winning, because he focused on the wrong enemy. The fact that a simple workman in Poland could rise to be one of the principle agents leading to the defeat of the Soviet Union is an extraordinary story, and it’s hard to wish for a different outcome. Yet it seems that the focus on Eastern Europe and the Soviets required compromises with their adversary, and it was that adversary — Western democracies — that proved a more deadly challenger to the Church. John Paul II fought the side that was openly hostile towards believers, but ignored until it was too late the side that seduced its believers with personal liberation. With its moral scandals, the Church has always been vulnerable to propaganda, and the propaganda gathered and promulgated by Western societies is far more accomplished, and is far more deadly for the Church. So the end result of John Paul II’s victory is a church that is dying in the East, in countries like Poland, and in the West, in countries like Ireland.

In many ways, I’m grateful to have an incompetent like Trump in the Oval Office, because in politics, incompetents are much less dangerous than inspired geniuses. I’m fond the vacuous, lazy, but gratefully benign, Obama, and I especially like the symbolism of his administration's early action to ship the Oval Office Churchill bust back to Britain. It strikes me as a necessary corrective, because it may have been George Bush’s admiration for Churchill’s leadership that led us on the path to liberate the Middle East from oppression.

These final words from the great Calvin College are worth remembering, even if they don’t inspire:

The people cannot look to legislation generally for success. Industry, thrift, character, are not conferred by act or resolve. Government cannot relieve from toil. It can provide no substitute for the rewards of service. It can, of course, care for the defective and recognize distinguished merit. The normal must care for themselves. Self-government means self-support.

Retired software developer, husband, father. Student of history. Met Fan

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