What Is Greatness?
A democracy, not less than any other form of government, needs great men to lead and inspire the people. —James Bryce, The American Commonwealth
Ronald Reagan, like many American politicians of both parties, liked to quote Winston Churchill. Reagan paraphrased him by name in his first presidential utterance, his inaugural address in 1981. "To paraphrase Winston Churchill," Reagan said, "I did not take the oath I've just taken with the intention of presiding over the dissolution of the world's strongest economy." Reagan quoted or mentioned the example of Churchill more than 150 times during his presidency—more than three times as much as any other president. Beyond the direct references, one finds that Reagan discussed many political issues in the same terms, and with the same vocabulary, as Churchill.
Many fine books have been written about Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, the contemporary world leaders and indispensable partners of the Western alliance during World War II. And the most apt Anglo-American comparison might seem to be Churchill and the other Roosevelt—Theodore Roosevelt. Both were war heroes. Both were serious and accomplished writers and historians. Churchill certainly understood the meaning of TR's "bully pulpit" and his famous injunction to be "in the arena," getting your nose bloodied. In 1940 an American newspaper saw enough of the similarities to call Churchill "the Rough Rider of Downing Street." It turns out that TR, who met the young Churchill in 1900, didn't care for the brash young Englishman. His daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, later told historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that her father disliked Churchill because "they were so much alike."
Meanwhile the affinity between Churchill and Reagan has been overlooked. Perhaps it is because, on the surface, Reagan and Churchill seem to be quite different people. Having written books about both men, however, I came to see that the comparison is a proper one, if for no other reason than the connecting thread of the Cold War. Churchill, with his famous Iron Curtain speech of 1946, made in the presence of Harry Truman, might be said to have launched the Cold War for the West. Reagan, a former Truman Democrat, ended it. Churchill said in the Iron Curtain speech that World War II could have been prevented "without the firing of a single shot." Reagan, heeding Churchill's vivid lesson, brought the Cold War to an end "without firing a single shot," Margaret Thatcher observed. (Indeed, Reagan's partnership with Thatcher in the 1980s could be seen as the very fulfillment of the Anglo-American unity that Churchill had envisioned in the Iron Curtain speech and elsewhere.)
As I began writing the second volume of my history of Ronald Reagan and his place in American political life (the forthcoming book The Age of Reagan: Lion at the Gate, 1980-1989), I recognized that the links between Reagan and Churchill extended beyond this Cold War connection. The parallels between the two men, I realized, were extensive, deep, and important. In particular, it became clear that pondering the cases of Churchill and Reagan side by side opens a window onto critical aspects of political genius, and political greatness, at the highest level.
That is why I have written this book. Unfortunately, the mainstream of contemporary history and political science does not adequately take account of the nature and sources of political greatness. Indeed, the egalitarian temper of modern intellectual life, combined with the reductionist methodology of social science, deprecates individual greatness and seeks to reduce the course of human affairs to material and subrational forces. Examining the lives and careers of Reagan and Churchill reminds us, however, that questions of how we understand political greatness deserve our attention.
What is greatness, especially political greatness? In three thousand years we have not surpassed the understanding of Aristotle, who summed up political greatness as the ability to translate wisdom into action on behalf of the public good. To be able to do this, Aristotle argued, requires a combination of moral virtue, practical wisdom, and public-spiritedness. This is exceedingly problematic, as is evident from the difficulty Aristotle has explaining it. One must know not only what is good for oneself but also what is good for others. It is not enough merely to be wise or intelligent in the ordinary IQ-score sense; in fact, Aristotle goes to great lengths to show that practical wisdom "is at the opposite pole from intelligence." One must have moral virtue, judgment, and public spirit in a fine balance, and these traits must be equally matched to the particular circumstances of time and place. It is easy to go wrong, even with the best intentions.
Greatness is not an art or a science that can be mastered through standardized training. That is one reason why few are the people on whom we bestow the exalted title of statesman. But we can study examples of greatness, and learn to recognize it when it is in our midst.
The British historian Geoffrey Elton wrote, "When I meet a historian who cannot think that there have been great men, great men moreover in politics, I feel myself in the presence of a bad historian. And there are times when I incline to judge all historians by their opinion of Winston Churchill—whether they can see that, no matter how much better the details, often damaging, of the man and his career become known, he still remains, quite simply, a great man." Much the same thing can be said of Ronald Reagan.
From the Hardcover edition.