March 3, 2014
RE: Entry 7
George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. Andrew Jackson. James Polk. Abraham Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson. Franklin Roosevelt. Dwight Eisenhower. Ronald Reagan. My top 10 presidents, in historical order (feel free to rank them yourself). I have reasons as to why each is on the list, and while really a coincidence is fairly balanced as to political party. I would be happy to argue the merits of each of these men, their leadership or their ability. There are others I could include (Harry Truman, for one) but I limited myself to ten. Each has particular characteristics which commend them to my august list. Three were generals (Washington, Jackson and Eisenhower), who curiously were not wartime presidents. Four were presidents during the time of recognized, declared war (Polk, Lincoln, Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt). Two were recognized for peacetime militarism (Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan), but were both presidents in times, to paraphrase Teddy: So long as you carried a big stick, you could walk softly (this was particularly effective for Ronald Reagan in the age of true mass communication). The only one I have not put into a neat category is Jefferson, who simply defies categorization—truly he is the one on the list who, for good or ill,remains a paradox. The rest have been set, rightly or wrongly, into an historical down-through-the-ages pose, even Ronald Reagan whose name is invoked more often than the Lord in some conservative circles.
What makes a good leader? The truth is, we—I at least—do not know. It often depends on the circumstances as they dictate what “good” means. We often recognize wartime leaders as great simply because in the desperate times of war, strong bold leadership is usually more effective than sullen, plodding inaction (there are rebuttals to this last contention, if you want, go read about Joseph Joffre of France). Sometimes strong bold leadership is disastrous as well, but those people never make it into such lists. Give me a minute to make the following around-the-barn analogy: They say that hospital personnel attribute more birth activity to a full moon; policemen often are heard to make the same claim, that criminal activity is lunar-driven (hence the term “lunacy”—really!). Statistically, it just does not hold up, and more often than not those making that correlation of the moon’s phase to some activity are simply associating particular events incorrectly. A cop coming off a particularly zany shift full of crazies, looking up and seeing the full moon may make a connection that would not be made if he did not see a moon. As such, you never hear anyone claiming a Gibbous Moon (it is really a phase) causes such activity, because no one makes that connection. Our minds like to search for patterns even where they do not exist. And so, arriving back again to the barn door, it is such with leadership. We tend to associate decisiveness with some event and not some lack of an event (Calvin Coolidge—any thoughts?). So my main contention here is that a truly great leader is usually a person able to pick through and read the times and know when to act, so that when opportunity meets that person, he is able to succeed. In addition, I have always listed that there were two fundamentals to leadership: knowing the right thing and doing the right thing. Neither alone is, nor both together are, easy.
But do not discount luck. Or War. A friend once talked with Chuck Yeager who said that had it not been for World War II, he would have retired as a gas well tender in Lincoln County, West Virginia. Obviously he was in the right place for the right time for the right circumstances. And the rest, as they say, is…
I once read a book about France in the 1930’s. France has always fascinated me. Not the Fox News view of France as a comic caricature, croissants with wheels, but the France that won World War I. It won that war but in many ways never recovered. The most fascinating part is the leadership in that war. One in particular was a man named Georges Clemenceau. Go read about him yourself, but this man spanned ages in time and space—he was present at the parading of the Union Army through the streets of Washington at the end of the American Civil War—and was still around and relevant fifty (5-0) years later to take over France at it is truly darkest time. Most American school children are taught that World War I was a schoolyard fight until we got there, but it just wasn’t so. In fact, France was very nearly beaten, bankrupt in 1917—and almost lost the war in the spring of 1918. We helped, that much is sure, but France was bled white. The reason I am writing this is because in the 1930’s the generation of French politicians, many of the war veterans for sure, utterly failed France. When the time came for the need for leadership, it was not to be found, bound up in fractious politics, interparty rivalries, petty grievances, things that made the enemy seem better than a rival countryman. I suppose the best of that generation of French leadership was buried under the sod in the 1914-1918 war, never having the opportunity to later stand for France at the point of it is most vital need. We have been very fortunate in America to have had the right leadership at the right time, but it is not always so in the history of the world.