‘Unhappy the country without heroes!’ – ‘No. Unhappy the country that needs them.’

We are all struck now by the striking absence of leadership qualities in our president. And in fact enumerating these qualities, or rather the nearly complete lack of such in Donald Trump, seems to be the main preoccupation of the Democrats (and the liberals that they mostly are).

Eric Hobsbawm in a London Review of Books piece of May, 1991, reminds us all that time ago that our great nation has probably elected to its Presidency – that is, to the post of chief executive and commander-in-chief – a greater number of ignorant dumbos than any other democracy on earth. There have been few if any heroes. Indeed, Hobsbawm was convinced that our political system made it almost impossible to elect to the Presidency persons of visible ability and distinction, except by accident and, just possibly, at moments of national crisis, does he mean Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt?

Conclusion, although we have a president of little ability or distinction we need not because of that be afraid for the future. This is the way things have mostly always been,  little talent and experience at the top. Today if we are afraid it’s rather because the world is different from ever before. Today nine countries together possess the destructive power of some 15,000 nuclear weapons, all more powerful than the bomb dropped over Hiroshima. The only important question to ask is, does Donald Trump’s lack of talent and experience put us more at risk of starting a nuclear war? If we feel it does we should impeach him. Otherwise we can live with him.

Eric Hobsbawm:  In the USA Presidents have quite frequently had to be replaced at short notice, whether because of assassination or malfeasance or for other reasons, by Vice-Presidents, who have usually been chosen for every reason other than their leadership potential. And yet the great US ship of state has sailed on as though it made very little difference that the man on the bridge was Andrew Johnson and not Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and not McKinley, Mrs Wilson and not Woodrow Wilson, Truman and not Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and not Kennedy, Ford and not Nixon, or even that there was nobody in the White House at all – as under Reagan.

In short, a strong economy and great power can be politically almost foolproof, just as, conversely, there are limits to what pure talent and leadership can achieve, as every military historian knows. Rommel was beaten by generals far inferior to him, but with far superior resources. General Schwarzkopf’s hero Hannibal won the textbook model of the battle of total annihilation against Rome at Cannae, but Rome won the war and Carthage lost it. On this subject the little dialogue in Brecht’s Galileo has said the last word: ‘Unhappy the country without heroes!’ – ‘No. Unhappy the country that needs them.’

From, What difference did she make?

by Eric Hobsbawm

  • A Question of Leadership: Gladstone to Thatcher by Peter Clarke
    Hamish Hamilton, 334 pp, £17.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 241 13005 0
  • The Quiet Rise of John Major by Edward Pearce
    Weidenfeld, 177 pp, £14.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 297 81208 4

in the London Review of Books, Vol. 13 No. 10 · 23 May 1991


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