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Conversations with Power: What Great Presidents and Prime Ministers Can Teach Us about Leadership
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Conversations with Power: What Great Presidents and Prime Ministers Can Teach Us about Leadership

by Brian Michael Till

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Fresh out of college, and frustrated with own generation's political apathy, Brian Till set out to interview the former world leaders he most admired. To his surprise, they were eager to talk, and he soon found himself discussing everything from energy to terrorism to nuclear disarmament with the greatest leaders of the last twenty-five years. Here, he distills


Fresh out of college, and frustrated with own generation's political apathy, Brian Till set out to interview the former world leaders he most admired. To his surprise, they were eager to talk, and he soon found himself discussing everything from energy to terrorism to nuclear disarmament with the greatest leaders of the last twenty-five years. Here, he distills what they learned in office, their predictions for the future, and their advice for the leaders of tomorrow. Including interviews with:

*Bill Clinton

*Gro Bruntland

*Jimmy Carter

*Fernando Henrique Cardoso

*Ehud Barak

*Vaclav Havel

*Mikhail Gorbachev

*Pervez Musharraf

*F.W. de Klerk

*Ricardo Lagos

*Helmut Schmidt

*Goh Chok Tong

*Paul Keating

Editorial Reviews

Academy Award-winning writer of Traffic and writer Stephen Gaghan

An astonishing range of knowledge is on display here - both in world leaders giving context to their rule, and in the piercing, precise questions Till uses to gain access to the answers...as entertaining as any thriller you'll see this year.
From the Publisher

“This is a collection full of voices that have not been heard enough in America, and the world. Brian Till has spent quality time with some of the most innovative and significant officials of the past few decades, and their experiences and insights are a delight to read, as well as provide an important series of history lessons.” —Seymour M. Hersh

Conversations with Power reflects one young man's quest for knowledge and reassurance from a fascinating array of past leaders. The result is not only a revealing set of lessons about the possibilities and limitations of power; it is also a challenge to a new generation to take the future into its own hands.” —Madeleine K. Albright, Former U.S. Secretary of State

“This is a marvelous collection. Brian Till has journeyed around the world talking to leaders of all sorts of government about how they got to the top, what they did there, what worked, what did not. His book gives valuable insights into the secrets of power - and how the powerful see the world today.” —William Shawcross, author of Deliver Us From Evil

“An astonishing range of knowledge is on display here - both in world leaders giving context to their rule, and in the piercing, precise questions Till uses to gain access to the answers...as entertaining as any thriller you'll see this year.” —Stephen Gaghan, Academy Award-winning writer of Traffic and writer/director of Syriana.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
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5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

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Conversations with Power

What Great Presidents And Prime Ministers can Teach us About Leadership

By Brian Michael Till

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2011 Brian Michael Till
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-12036-5






November 2009

IN AUGUST OF 1965, the thin and professorial Fernando Henrique Cardoso, then only thirty-four, found himself at his father's funeral, flanked by roughly a hundred fellow mourners, almost all of them clad in military green and brass. One of the more decorated men approached Cardoso's cousin, who, in turn, approached Cardoso. "The general offered condolences on behalf of the military," the cousin told him in a hushed tone. "He also said that you will need to leave Brazil as soon as possible."

The day before, Cardoso had been in Chile, watching from exile as a military junta continued to consolidate power over his native Brazil. He received a telegram that read simply, "Sapo morreu." Cardoso's father, a general, was gone; his exiled son did not even know he was sick, let alone close to death. In Brazil, by custom, the deceased are typically buried within twenty-four hours; Cardoso faced the choice of returning to Brazil despite an outstanding arrest warrant and jail sentence handed down in absentia, or missing his father's funeral.

IN MARCH OF 1963, Cardoso was among the first targeted by the new government. Within hours of the coup, the military apprehended and interrogated a young sociology professor from the University of São Paulo. Bento Prado, a colleague of Cardoso's, managed to convince his captors that he was not Fernando Henrique and earn his release. News of Prado's arrest reached Cardoso who, with the help of a friend's contacts with Air France, found a single airport north of São Paulo where his name did not appear on the no-fly list. He fled, leaving his wife and children behind.

The community of exiled Brazilians that assembled in Chile expected the military to hand power back to civilians within several years. The intervention was well precedented and welcomed by a large portion of the population who charged that democracy had led to stagnation and immense corruption. But the junta held power for the next twenty years. Cardoso's sentence, though, was overturned in 1967, when an amicable military judge, who would later be targeted by the junta himself, offered absolution and an impassioned diatribe against the dictatorship.

During the 1960s, Cardoso drew respect from abroad for his work in exile. He joined the United Nations' Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and his affection for Marxism and the left cooled as he watched communist East Germany and North Korea fall drastically behind capitalist counterparts. His book "Dependency and Development in Latin America," co-authored with Enzo Faletto, was one of the most important social science works of the decade. It challenged Latin American thinkers to abandon doctrinal affiliations and elaborate theories and to instead ground their work in the plausible. It rejected the notion that Latin American nations were the victims of foreign imperialism and needed to cut ties with the developed nations, while also acknowledging that their leaders have a limited scope of power, given their dependence on the United States and others. The work gained substantial notoriety and led to prestigious offers for Cardoso to teach abroad. Instead, he returned with his family to the University of São Paulo, where he taught and began a career as a dissident.

The next year, in 1969, the university announced the forced retirement of 70 professors, including Cardoso. Over the next decade, a number of his friends joined the armed resistance. He recalls in his memoir, "Social and political life tended to blend into one. On one occasion, I found myself in a car with a group of friends as we delivered a small shipment of machine guns to someone's house. This was done nonchalantly, as if it were one of several errands to be run that day."

Cardoso remained political in his dissent, however, writing commentary for magazines and running for senate in 1978. He planned the campaign as a protest. His political rights—the privilege to vote and to stand for election—had been stripped along with his position at the university, and he thought there was little chance he would be allowed onto the ballot. But when the military attempted to outlaw his campaign, the Brazilian media ran with the story—the squashed candidacy of a humble professor espousing democracy. The regime was forced to let Cardoso stand for office; he became an alternate senator representing São Paulo.

In the end, it was more likely the failure of the military to keep the economy afloat rather than the work of Cardoso or other dissidents that led to the regime's demise. But, amid the fight, Cardoso made a powerful ally: a small but fiery union leader, the seventh of eight children and the only one to complete primary school. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, as he is now known around the world, would be first a comrade to Cardoso, then a political rival, then finally a successor as president.

BRAZIL, A NATION OF nearly 200 million people and tremendous natural resources, is the world's fourth largest democracy. It remains alarmingly poor. Cardoso, first as a finance minister and then as president, pulled the fledgling economy into the modern era. He was rewarded in 2001 when Goldman Sachs's chief economist coined the term "BRIC" for the most promising middle powers: Brazil, Russia, India, and China.

The title of Cardoso's autobiography is The Accidental President. It is certainly a stretch, but there is some truth to the idea. After the public wrangled power back from the military in 1985, the presidency suffered a number of tragedies. The first president became gravely ill the day of his inauguration and died a month later. Two of the next three presidents would leave office amid impeachment, corruption, and scandal. And, in 1992, when a little-known vice president named Itamar Franco rose to the presidency, he appointed Cardoso as his foreign minister. The hapless Franco faced the same problem that had plagued the Brazilian economy for more than a decade: extraordinary inflation. He burned through three finance ministers in one seven-month period. Though calculations vary, inflation was well over 1,000 percent in 1993, and certainly over 2,000 percent in 1994. Economists generally put healthy inflation between 2 and 5 percent.

In May of 1993, Cardoso stopped in New York on his way home from an official trip to Japan. There, at dinner with the Brazilian ambassador to the UN, he took a phone call from the president, who asked him to consider becoming finance minister. Cardoso had no interest in the job and went to bed thinking he had convinced the president to address the matter upon his return. He awoke to headlines announcing his appointment.

When we sat down, I asked him what chance he thought he had to succeed in those first days. He laughed. "Twenty percent," he said. "The president was psychologically unstable."

I asked if he believed the president was legitimately imbalanced, or if that was hyperbole. Yes, he replied emphatically. "I had the capacity to convince the president and to calm him down, and, to some extent, he gave me power and he transferred responsibilities to me." Cardoso drafted the Plano Real, which combined a new, more stable currency fixed closely to the value of the US dollar—which the government took pains to introduce cautiously—with severe reductions to the bloated government budget. The measures, despite many forecasts to the contrary, worked. Cardoso's path to the presidency as Franco's successor was born.

The second major achievement of Cardoso's career came in the realm of public health. Brazil was on course to face one of the world's most severe HIV/AIDS epidemics during his presidency; Cardoso and health minister José Serra launched one of the world's most effective responses to the disease. It coupled coordination with charities and private organizations (often called NGOs—nongovernmental organizations) with awareness campaigns and access to free treatment. To accomplish this, Cardoso took on the manufacturers of antiretroviral drugs, which allow those with the disease to continue living, often for decades, after the virus has progressed substantially. The corporations that had developed the complex pill regimens—like Merck &&&; Co., Pfizer, and the Swiss firm Hoffman–La Roche—were then charging well over $10,000 per year per patient for the treatments. Cardoso encouraged Brazilian drug companies to break international patent laws to produce generic versions. In response, the Clinton administration, on behalf of the American pharmaceutical companies, brought a case against Cardoso at the World Trade Organization. The case was dropped on World Aids Day in 2001 by George W. Bush.

THE MORNING WE WERE slated to meet, I found Cardoso eating breakfast alone. We met on the periphery of the Club de Madrid, an assembly of former heads of state that convenes annually in the Spanish capital. His demeanor juxtaposes simplicity and elegance. He has a deep, even regal voice, thin metal-rimmed glasses, and thick gray hair that he often keeps long in the back. He is overwhelmingly affable, a good deal more humble than most egos that have suffered eight years of motorcades and honor guards. And he lacks the intellectual arrogance befitting a man with a wall of honorary degrees—more than twenty—and consistently ranked among the world's foremost intellectuals. The cover story of theEconomist the week we met was titled "Brazil Takes Off," and it lauded his work laying the foundation for the modern Brazilian economy. He smiled with cheeks full of breakfast as I handed him a copy, thanked me, and added it to a sizable stack of papers he had already amassed for the flight home.

There's an American tradition to leave a letter in the Oval Office to the next president, sort of advice and things like that. If you were to give two or three pieces of advice to the next generation of leaders, what would they be?

It's difficult to advise a new president, because everyone wants to start the world from the beginning, and you have to understand and accept that. But I would say, first of all, you have to listen more than you think, listen to others. It's not enough to listen to your people, your team; you have to listen to people's anxieties. People's anxieties are not expressed through words. You're asking me about what are the challenges of the time. So we have to be capable to make a kind of compromise between real politics, your people, your team, who says you have to do this and that, and the more ample expectations of the country.

And don't forget that at some point in time, it's better to leave the office for another person. Because even if you are very good, it's important to leave, and not because of corruption—because it's not inevitable that power will corrupt you—but because of the fact that routine is maybe worse for a nation than personal corruption. As more time comes and goes, you believe that you know everything. And that's not true. If you don't understand that it's better for you to leave the office to others, you become an obstacle.

It's interesting that you say you start to think you know things better than others, because other presidents have said that, too. I wonder, how else did you feel yourself changing?

I don't know. My family was involved in power, so I had some indirect experience. Anyhow, I never imagined how difficult it is to exercise power, how cruel it is to do that.

What do you mean?

Cruel, because, you have to fire good people, you have to say "no" to people who are asking you valid, demanding questions. For instance, in some circumstances we had to say no to increasing salaries for people who could use it, because the global situation didn't allow for it. So, it's hard to be a serious political leader. If you are a populist, it's very easy. But if you have a project, and you have to enforce your project, you have to put it into practice, then you have to say, "no, no, no," even when people are asking you for things you'd love to say "yes" to. So it's not easy; it's very hard to do that.

So politics is a matter for strong people. Then you have also to understand that people will criticize you, judge you, and will consider you not in terms of your real ideas or intentions or even behavior, but based on your image. You have to understand that; otherwise, you cannot handle the situation because you have to read in the newspapers stupid things, silly things, aggressive things, that aren't even about you, but about the image they have of you.

I used a tactic to be able to deal with that kind of situation. If a friend of mine or a member of my party said something very critical and in personal terms, I preferred not to read it. Once, one of these old oligarchs in Brazil gave a press interview criticizing me very dramatically in bad terms, and unjustly from my point of view.

Sometime later he wanted or needed to be close to me again, and he came to see me and he brought a copy of the interview in his pocket to justify, to make excuses for the things he had said. When he started speaking, I said, "don't waste your time. I never read your interview." It was true. I preferred not to read; otherwise, how could I ever speak with this man again?

Were you surprised by the lack of knowledge of other leaders? You refer to George W. Bush asking if you had many black people in your country, and Ronald Reagan in Brasilia remarking how happy he was to be in Bolivia.

Yeah, it's shocking to see how it is. Once I had a boss, a Spanish sociologist at the UN. He was a wonderful man, and he used to say, "Fernando, it's better not to know those who command the world." It's a bit like that. You cannot imagine those who are the leaders in the world, that they lack knowledge about specific situations. They have to have other qualities, though.

Let me ask you about another aspect of power. Václav Havel compared being president to being on a submarine, in that you're constantly surrounded by the same people and that it can be difficult to get outside information. Other leaders have spoken about how difficult it is for aides to say "no," or to deliver bad news, because so much of their influence depends on having a good relationship with the president. Did you experience that?

Yes. This is absolutely true, but there are mechanisms to avoid the situation. In my case, I always had some people around me to say whatever they wanted. First, inside of my family—my wife was very clear in taking positions and not necessarily agreeing with me, and she was strong enough to sustain her opinions. Second, you have to read papers, because newspapers normally give the opposition voice, and you have to take into account what they have to say.

Another very hard situation when you are in power is having to deal with those who want to approach you too much, to be around you. And you have to protect yourself from those who'd say "yes, yes and yes." The president requires some formality. I am an informal person, it's easy to talk to me, but being president cannot be like that. You have to have those who are really capable to speak to you more openly, but, in general, some ritual is necessary to keep distance from your friends, because friends can be transformed into chains of bad influence.

But it's very important to listen to ordinary people. I used to swim almost every morning when I was the president, and I had people from a hospital close by come to train me. I used to talk to them, but, even more so, I used to talk to the man who was in charge of the swimming pool, an old man who had been there for a long time, very simple. And I encouraged him to talk about different questions—his life, what people say, so on and so forth.

My father was a military man and he participated in different revolutionary movements, democratic movements, in Brazil, and ended up in prison with his brother several times. They were treated well, but my father said, "all the time I tried to talk to my guard. At the end, my guard was transmitting my news to my brother in another part of the prison." Even in prison you have to talk to your guard, he taught me. You have to talk, have to listen; this is the way we can avoid being inside the submarine. It is feasible.

Speaking about these qualities required of a leader, Ronald Reagan used to say, I can't imagine anyone being a head of state without having been an actor or having some theatrical experience. Does that ring true to you?

I think that what Reagan said is correct nowadays. Leadership now requires a capacity for mass communication, requires one to have some actor's qualities to perform. And this is both good and bad. It's bad because actors are not necessarily intellectual leaders or inspirational leaders. Look, for instance, what has happened in Latin America—Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Chávez is a good actor. Our presidencies overlapped for a few years, and normally at summits, when we have a family photo with all the presidents, he is normally the last one to come, to attract attention. And sometime he comes with a football or some kind of ball in his hands, or a hat. He's an actor.


Excerpted from Conversations with Power by Brian Michael Till. Copyright © 2011 Brian Michael Till. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Brian Michael Till is a Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and a correspondent for The Atlantic. His columns have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Las Vegas Sun, the Los Angeles Daily News, Newsday, The Oregonian, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the St. Petersburg Times. He has been a guest on NPR's Talk of the Nation and has worked with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and the Treatment Action Campaign in Cape Town, South Africa. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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