Commentary Magazine

A World Without Leaders

The late Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the London Daily Express and other successful newspapers, had a habit of calling the office late in the evening and, if not immediately able to track down the editor-in-chief, bellowing: “Who’s in charge of the clattering train?” Beaverbrook had a fearful image of his entire organization charging at full speed through the night, lights ablaze in every car, but with no engineer at the controls. This image often recurs to me as I contemplate the present state of the West, indeed, the whole of the civilized world. The lights are all on, there is riotous eating and drinking in the dining car, there are frantic games of poker, the darkened countryside hurtles past as we head for the millennium, but in the engineer’s cab there is a collection of second-rate men holding futile arguments.

I do not recall any point in my lifetime when leadership has been so lacking right across the international democratic spectrum. Even during the “phony war” of 1939-40, when Chamberlain and Daladier, two bewildered and exhausted men, were languidly trying to organize a reluctant Britain and France to face the overwhelming reality of totalitarian power, at least there was the formidable presence of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House and, at Admiralty House in London, the incomparable Winston Churchill restlessly awaiting his cue to march center stage and start issuing commands.

Now there is no one of substance on the stage nor, so far as one can see, any understudy of caliber waiting in the wings. In Washington, the most important job of all is occupied by a man who has yet to prove that he can respond to great events even when free of domestic worries, but who is haunted by his disorderly past and increasingly entangled in the dishonest measures taken by himself and his staff to keep it buried. I have some sympathy with respectable Democratic pundits who argue, not wholly disinterestedly, that for the sake of the nation—and the world—Republicans in Congress and the media should call off the hunt for the scalp of Bill Clinton, and even that of his wife, and allow the President to get on with his job of leading the West.

Of course the same pundits had no such inhibition about hunting down Richard Nixon in 1974, when the international situation was in many ways far more serious. But that does not mean they are wrong to call for a truce this time.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the Clintons—I use the plural deliberately—would respond to a domestic cease-fire in the spirit in which it would be offered. Quite the contrary. Those who run the White House would take advantage of any end of hostilities about Clinton’s past to consolidate their position and dig in for a long rule. They talk brazenly of a second term and, beyond that, of a Hillary presidency. That is only one of many reasons why the pack will never be called off the Clintons.



It is no new thing for the British to be forced to fill a leadership vacuum in Washington caused by the demands of American domestic politics. In a sense England has had to do this every four years, during the months when the U.S. electoral cycle is at its most intense. Number Ten Downing Street likewise provided more protracted bolstering during the presidential vicissitudes of the mid-1970’s, when the British were sorely beset themselves.

But the trouble today is that Number Ten Downing Street is also in weary, incapable, and almost desperate hands. I have argued in British newspapers that John Major is the least robust Prime Minister since Viscount Goderich in the 1820’s, a man described by the young Disraeli as “a transient and embarrassed phantom,” who spent a lot of his spell in office weeping on the irritated bosom of his master, King George IV.

Some people would dispute this harsh comparison, but virtually all agree that Major is not up to his job. No sensible initiative can be expected from him even in the narrow area of Anglo-European relations, and it is quite beyond his strength or imagination to make a useful contribution to the West’s handling of the post-cold-war world.

In Continental Europe, the roll call of leaders is no better. In Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl is now nearing the end of his road, hopelessly floundering in the quagmire he created for himself by opting for the instant integration of East Germany. He is unlikely to survive the October election and meanwhile has neither time nor energy to contribute to the West’s counsels. In France, FranÇois Mitterrand is also at the end of his journey, beset by terminal scandals of his own making. Felipe Gonzalez of Spain too is in terminal scandal trouble, and the new joker in the European pack, the populist Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, is still setting up his regime.

It may be that, in time, Europe’s emergent populists, with their hostility to the old, failed coalitions of socialists and Christian Democrats, and their ability to articulate the frustrations and conservative impulses of Europe’s forgotten masses, will provide new and vigorous leadership. But their time, though coming, is not yet, and in the interval Europe has nothing to give.

Finally, Japan, though possessing the world’s second largest economy, not only has no leadership to offer but retains a political culture which brutally reproves public men who show signs of displaying any leadership at all. Japan works through the collective consensus of its elites, which evolves mysteriously and often tardily. In prewar times, those who tried to offer individual leadership in the Western tradition were assassinated, and as a result Japan blundered into a war which most of those at the top were well aware it could not win. The advent of democracy and the rule of law have enormously improved the quality of Japan’s public life except in this respect, where nothing has changed. Japanese women, in my observation, do not feel these inhibitions about leading from the front, and over the next quarter-century, as they penetrate the upper reaches of public life, their contribution may change things. But their time, too, is not yet.

In short, if we survey the great and medium-sized powers today, it is hard to point to any society which is producing leadership. Ironically, the one exception is President Boris Yeltsin of Russia, a man who came to the top the hard way, by displaying determination and courage, and a knack for seizing the moment—leadership qualities par excellence. But he, too, is beset by all kinds of troubles, many of his own making, and his recently published memoirs reveal that his power to control events even in his own country is far more limited than most of us had supposed. He is more likely to be appealing to the West for help than aiding it with its leadership problem.



There are two more important general points to be made in any discussion of leadership. First, however generously displays of leadership may be acknowledged by posterity—particularly distant posterity—they usually evoke huge hostility at the time.

Thus, all the most successful leaders of recent decades have been vilified. General de Gaulle, who rescued France from anarchy in 1958, gave it stability, and laid the foundations of its present prosperity, was the object of intense hostility throughout his rule and was ignominiously turned out by popular vote in 1969. Margaret Thatcher, who performed similar services for Britain, was savagely axed by her colleagues in 1990, to general popular approval. Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, perhaps the most resourceful of all postwar leaders, who transformed a small colony with no natural resources and an annual percapita income of under $100 into one of the richest states in the world, has been bitterly denounced as an autocrat by all the world’s “right-thinking” people.

Truly, the lesson of the modern world is that no good deed of statesmanship goes unpunished.

Secondly, it is a mistake to believe that leadership qualities habitually propel those who possess them to the top. On the contrary. Most systems, democratic and traditionalist alike, tend to reward mediocrities, time-servers, appeasers, and base operators of all kinds.

Accident also plays a disturbingly large role in the emergence of good leaders. To take a striking example from the American past, George Washington’s ambition for many years was to obtain a regular commission in the British army, and mightily did he strive for it. Had it not been for the obstinacy of the boobies at the Horse Guards, and what Washington himself then regarded as devilish bad luck, he would almost certainly have fought the War of Independence on the side of George III. But could independence have been secured without his tenacity of leadership, or would the Republic have made its new Constitution work without his magnanimous guidance as its first President?

So, too, any student of the years 1850-60 in the United States is bound to marvel at the odd conjunctions of unlikely events which made it possible for Abraham Lincoln to be elected President—on a minority vote—in 1860. And of course he was murdered for saving a great nation by giving it the leadership it needed in its agony.

In our own century, de Gaulle may have seen the unerring hand of providence propelling him to the top, but everyone else judged his career to be a weird succession of lucky chances. As for Churchill, he was always ready to acknowledge the huge element of luck, good and bad, which punctuated his uncertain career. (When crossing Park Avenue in New York, I often pause at the spot where, in the autumn of 1929, he was nearly killed for forgetting that Americans drive on the right.) He finally got the premiership in May 1940 because, by a miracle of self-restraint, he broke the habit of a lifetime and held his garrulous tongue at the crucial moment. Some four decades later, the way Margaret Thatcher became (despite her initial reluctance) leader of the Conservative party was akin to another miracle.

Still, granted the odds against any country’s getting the leadership it needs at a particular time, the record of the United States is, on the whole, a good one. The four Presidents who followed Washington provided a continuity of aim and method that gave the new state stability and growth. John Quincy Adams was a disaster, but then Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren gave a dozen years of just the kind of leadership needed in a country ruled no longer by an oligarchy but by the demos.

There followed six duds, or near duds, in a row, culminating in the lassitude of James Buchanan. But all was redeemed by Lincoln, a democratic leader of genius. Of the next seven Presidents, only two, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley, were much above average. But in the 20th century, there have been six outstanding leaders: both Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan—and I would be inclined to rate highly Calvin Coolidge and Richard Nixon as well.

No other major country over the past two centuries can boast a comparable roll call of ability, high-mindedness, and courage. One reason why the American Constitution, the first written one in world history, has worked so well, and why America has emerged as the richest and most powerful nation, is its success, on balance, in electing good leaders by universal mandate.



Now, however, there are signs that this success story may be ending. Although the number of presidential candidates in recent elections has shown no sign of tailing off, especially on the Democratic side, the quality seems to have declined sharply. At the same time, the number of obviously qualified candidates who decline to run at any price is growing.

The reasons for this are disturbing. One is the amount of cash now needed to sustain an effective candidacy and the severe conditions imposed by law on the business of raising it. Many able and honorable men, and still more women, simply cannot face the legal and moral complexities of financing a campaign.

But even more important is the combination of statutory and media intrusion into the lives of those seeking high office, as discussed at length in Suzanne Garment’s excellent study, Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics. Two of her points are worth reiterating here. The creation of a statutory special prosecutor, with unlimited funds, to inquire into alleged wrongdoing of public officeholders, the President in particular, is a potential dagger pointed at the heart of the executive. In view of the cost of a legal defense, this device can reduce even a wealthy man to penury though he be wholly innocent; to someone without private means, the only choice, once a prosecution is launched, is plea-bargaining, and even this can be very expensive.

A second point to which Mrs. Garment draws attention is the way a hostile media and the special prosecutor’s office work hand in hand, the first exerting pressure for inquisitorial vigor, the second leaking scandalous details (often unverified) which produce yet more media pressure.

All these add immeasurably to the unavoidable risks of public office-seeking, and now undoubtedly deter honest and capable people from running (or accepting executive appointments). But whether the corner-cutters and the outright crooks are deterred, I very much doubt. It is a characteristic of the dishonest that they believe they will never be exposed or caught. The net result is a progressive lowering of the quality of candidates for public service.

Casting an eye over the list of successful presidential candidates of the past, I speculate on how many would have been deterred by the present-day habit of intrusion into presidential lives which is liable to degenerate into a witch-hunt at any moment. Would George Washington, already dubious about accepting the presidency, have put up with such treatment? The answer, surely, is no. Nor would Jefferson.

In fact, of the first dozen Presidents, I think perhaps the only one who would not have been deterred was Andrew Jackson, who had to endure media savaging over his marriage, his wife’s past, his duelling and, not least, his relations with the wife of his War Secretary. He brazened all this out, though complaining loudly, and I suspect he would have coped with today’s pressures too. But most of his contemporaries would have quailed, and this includes thick-skinned professionals like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, both of whom had much to hide.

Of later figures who successfully ran for the White House, my guess is that a number would have been put off by the culture of mistrust: Theodore Roosevelt for many reasons, Woodrow Wilson because of his mistress, FDR because of his sexual adventures and his wife’s supposed lesbianism, Harry Truman because of his business past, Dwight Eisenhower because of an extramarital affair. It is hard to see either John F. Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson achieving, still less keeping, the highest office under present conditions of legal and media inquisition.

This list speaks for itself. It is even possible that Lincoln, greatest of all Presidents, might have been discouraged from running by today’s sleazy kind of media scrutiny, on account of uneasy and sometimes acrimonious relations with his wife. On second thought, though, I doubt it. Lincoln was too strong- and single-minded to be scared out of doing his duty. But not everyone, including many outstanding individuals, is strong-minded in this way.



That the best available talent should increasingly bar itself from the world’s highest office because of the unwarranted stresses of legal and media scrutiny is a tragedy. For there is today no substitute for leadership from the White House.

Nor does the problem end with the White House. Britain, like the United States, has no invasion-of-privacy law, and though its public figures do not have to face America’s apparatus of legal terrorism, including special prosecutors, their life is equally made a misery by the workings of the media. In the last year alone, a dozen public figures, ranging from ministers to the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, have had their careers destroyed or damaged by brutal exposures which were in no way required by the public interest.

Few of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers of the past could have survived this kind of savaging—certainly not Sir Robert Walpole, who reveled in ill-gotten gains; or Pitt the Younger, who was often drunk; or Disraeli, who had a long history of financial skulduggery and mistresses (one of whom he shared with the Lord Chancellor); or Gladstone, who prowled the London streets picking up prostitutes for redemption; or Asquith, who enjoyed women and brandy excessively; or Lloyd George, who merely enjoyed women, sometimes on the carpet of the cabinet room. Churchill would have carried on because, like Lincoln, he was driven by an imperious sense of duty to his country. But I suspect Sir Anthony Eden would have been frightened off and Harold Macmillan would have been deterred by exposure of his wife’s lifelong liaison with his colleague Bob Boothby and the child she bore him.

It is true that if similar standards of exposure were applied in France, little would change. The French tend to assume that their rulers are corrupt and libidinous and will grab whatever money and women they can get their hands on. Unless the corruption is blatant or the sex involves minors, the public does not take much interest. Mitterrand has pursued women relentlessly and has been involved in affaires of other kinds throughout his intolerably long career, but neither tendency has prevented him from governing France longer than anyone since Napoleon III.

A public figure is more at risk in Germany, as the case of Willy Brandt testifies, but on the whole, statutory and media exposure of the Anglo-Saxon type does not deter good men from striving for office there. Nevertheless, even in France and Germany, the best are beginning to be put off by the increasingly sleazy standards of public life—a factor which applies a fortiori in Spain and Italy.

I am not impressed by those who say that leaders of the caliber of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are no longer necessary now that the cold war is over and the threat of nuclear conflict between the superpowers has been virtually removed. Good leaders of major nations are always desirable and often essential, as the whole of history teaches.

Moreover, in the post-cold-war world there are all kinds of new problems and dangers which require firm and wise handling, as the sorry mess we have made of the Bosnian crisis plainly reveals. There are also some nasty characters in charge of well-armed minor powers, who need to be checked in their aggressions just as firmly as the Hitlers and Stalins of yesteryear.

That strong leadership makes all the difference in handling these small wars is shown by comparing what happened in the Falklands and in Iraq. After the British had safely landed in the Falklands in 1982 and were poised for victory, Mrs. Thatcher was put under immense pressure, at home and abroad, to let the Argentine junta off the hook by accepting something well short of unconditional surrender. She flatly refused and went on to the end, thus ensuring that the Falklands problem would not recur in the foreseeable future, if ever, and, incidentally, ridding Argentina of its military dictatorship.

By contrast, in 1991, George Bush, without Mrs. Thatcher to stiffen him at the end as she had at the beginning, allowed himself to be persuaded or bullied into letting Saddam off the hook. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Kurds have been murdered, and Saddam and his horrible dictatorship are still there, obliging the allies to devote vast sums and scarce military resources to watching his every move.



There are many regimes almost if not quite as bad as Saddam’s and liable to cause trouble at any time. The Islamic fundamentalists in Iran are arming themselves as fast as they can, and similar regimes could take over in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Nor, I suspect, have we heard the last of Qaddafi, or even Castro, and the danger from a nuclear-armed North Korea is obvious.

Further south there is the huge, powerful, and still-Communist regime in China, rapidly building up an ocean-going navy, with carriers and aircraft bought cheaply from the Russians. There are more unresolved territorial and maritime claims in the Far East and Southeast Asia than anywhere else in the world, and China is involved in many of them. There is also the continuing Chinese genocide in Tibet, not to speak of the twenty million prisoners in China’s gulag—far more than even Stalin had at any one time. Admittedly not so many die in China’s camps as in Stalin’s, but the treatment is in some respects even more cruel and lasts longer. Who is going to bring China into the civilized international community?

At the heart of all this lies the need for American leadership, and that need cannot be filled unless a way is found to improve the flow of the right kind of talent to the White House. That ought to be a priority question in Congress, with a view to changing the legislative barriers to quality, and a subject of intense study in every think tank in the land. Not just America but the rest of the world has an enormous stake in the outcome.

About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author of Modern Times, A History of Christianity, and A History of the Jews, among many other books.

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