- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

DISRAELI: THE VICTORIAN DANDY WHO BECAME PRIME MINISTER

By Christopher Hibbert

Palgrave MacMillan, $29.95, 352 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES

Disraeli is the 38th book by Christopher Hibbert, the prolifically distinguished British historian who has written on a range of subjects from the Battle of Agincourt to Mussolini. If this biography is more troubling than some of his others it is because the person being portrayed is one of the real jerks of British history.

All persons who deliberately set out to make a name in the political arena have some fatal flaw or other. I mean, what sane person deliberately goes in for that nonsense? Many of these wannabes are morally obtuse, some are truly psychopathic. Many have only a shaky hold on political convictions, others (here one thinks of Winston Churchill) change their party affiliations more often than their socks. The most dangerous oftentimes are those possessed of a single idea.

Disraeli, whose sole cause was himself, had all of the flaws of self-absorption, faithlessness, emotional instability, cynicism, financial profligacy, and a flair for demagoguery that was unrivaled at the time. Think of Huey Long or, if you will, of Bill Clinton. Nevertheless, Disraeli turned out to be one of the better Victorian prime ministers, who in his duels with Liberal darling William Gladstone burnished the golden days of the Empire and set the beginnings of the culture of present-day Britain.

Indeed, the life of Disraeli underscores one of the hardy perennials of dinner table argument: Why it is that so many of the crafty, selfish and nasty of political figures turn out to be pretty adept at high office (think of Wilson, FDR, or LBJ), while the decent figures called to greatness so often fail (Hoover or Mr. Carter). What is it about the outsider that makes for greatness in leadership?

Benjamin Disraeli was an outsider, make no mistake about that. He was born in 1804 and named after his grandfather, Benjamin D’Israeli, who had emigrated from the Jewish ghetto of Venice in the early 1700s and made a fortune as a merchant trader. The fortune enabled his son Isaac to follow the leisurely life of a bookish gentleman devoted to his growing library and to the boy Benjamin, his sister and two younger brothers. The mother died early but Ben commanded the life-long devotion of both his father and Sarah, his sister.

Considering the rank anti-Semitism of Regency England, the Disraeli family (as their name now became) enjoyed considerable access and welcome among the establishment of finance and the arts. The two younger boys attended Winchester school and Ben, unhappily, was admitted to one of the Inns of Court to study law. He hated it and turned his hand to writing, using his father’s friendship with publisher John Murray as a stepping stone to gain entrance to the hermetically sealed world of English letters.

His first novel, a roman a clef, was written when he was 22, and it mercilessly lampooned many prominent figures in the arts world, including his old patron John Murray. Although the book was a success, it gained Disraeli the first building blocks of a reputation as a betrayer. He never batted an eye apparently, and what is astonishing is that he found a steady procession of people who would befriend him, be betrayed by him, and be replaced by others who would lend him support (and increasing sums of money) knowing well in advance what was in store for them.

Indeed, Mr. Hibbert portrays Disraeli as deriving some secret pleasure in earning the disapproval of others, reveling even when the constant opprobrium of “horrid Jew” was hurled at him by nearly everyone short of Queen Victoria herself. Most of his life he dressed in the extremes of foppish fashion that would have caused the Regency beaus to blush, his dark hair oiled into girlish ringlets, his conversation carefully styled into the bored waspish snide tone that made women giggle and men sneer.

He poured out a flood of novels almost as profuse as Charles Dickens (who despised him) but many times worse; their only attraction at the time was for the reader to puzzle out what great families were being pilloried by the young man who until recently had been invited into their homes. Without any real merit, each new novel sold fewer copies even as his need for fame mounted faster than his debts. He had to do something.

Not surprisingly, Disraeli decided to get himself elected to the House of Commons and to marry for money. Initially he failed at both objectives. His many love affairs seemed to center on unhappily married women who stood to lose everything if they succumbed. His first choice of a political identity was also flawed: He chose to be a Radical in opposition to the ruling Conservative Party; just as blithely he switched to the Tory side and continued to lose elections. Part of his problem was that his stump speaking style — which would become his primary asset — was still in the development stage.

But that would change. As one witness to an early banquet speech recounted, “(Disraeli) commenced in a lisping lackadaisical tone of voice … He minced his phrases in apparently the most affected manner, and, whilst he was speaking, placed his hands in all imaginable positions; not because he felt awkward and did not know, like a booby in a drawing-room, where to put them, but apparently for the purpose of exhibiting to the best advantage the glittering rings which decked his white and taper fingers.

“Now he would place his thumbs in the armholes of his waistcoat, and spread out his fingers on its flashing surface; then one set of digits would be released and he would lean affectedly on the table, supporting himself with his right hand; anon he would push aside the curls from his forehead … But as he proceeded all traces of the dandyism and affectation were lost. With a rapidity of utterance perfectly astonishing referred to past events and indulged in anticipations of the future.

“The Whigs were, of course, the objects of his unsparing satire, and his eloquent denunciations of them were applauded to the echo. In all he said he proved himself to be the finished orator … His voice, at first so finical, gradually became full, musical, and sonorous, and with every varying sentiment was beautifully modulated …”

Finally, he was elected to Parliament as a Conservative in 1837, at the age of 33. Two years later he married Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis, the widow of a political friend. She was a chattering rattlebrain, whose flirtatiousness and ignorant bad taste made her a comic character. Think the late Martha Mitchell of the Nixon era.

But she had some money (not enough as it turned out), and she totally and deeply adored Benjamin Disraeli with a devotion exceeded only by his sister. Although he continued to have affairs with many women thereafter, he was as deeply devoted to her in his way. She called her “Dizzy” the “Eagle” in private; she was his “Dove.”

It took Disraeli the next 30 years, until 1867, to reach the pinnacle of premiership, and he did it despite an unquenchable dislike of him within his own party. But there simply was no one else in contention in the Tory ranks who was as able a speaker or, when given a ministerial job such as chancellor of the exchequer, who did as well.

He also built a popular power base by backing reforms such as expanded voter suffrage that sought to make the Tories the party of the Crown, the landed aristocracy, the Church and the working class. The historic Whig enemy became increasingly isolated as the party of the still small urban bourgeois and merchant classes. Gladstone and his Liberals had to make coalitions with other radical groups that made them unstable.

Disraeli shrewdly paid flowery, flattering and almost seductive court to Queen Victoria, who after the death of her beloved Prince Albert in 1861 lived a precarious life of emotional seclusion. The British Monarchy still had power in those days, and Victoria was shrewd if somewhat erratic in her maneuvering. But maneuver she did, and she came to trust this exotic man whose compliments were over the top but nonetheless soothing. He did not always do what she commanded, but her trust was the one thing he never betrayed.

On balance, Disraeli was able through his moderate appeal to a broader range of classes to put through more of the social and economic reforms than did his more radical and rigid rival, Gladstone, with whom he swapped governments. He was also able in 1876 — through unexpected diplomatic skills — to put the first check on the imperial ambitions of the new German Empire’s towering Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck. It is Bismarck’s judgment that is as good an epitaph as it gets for Disraeli: “Das alte Jude, das is der Mann.” Mr. Hibbert’s portrait explains why that is so.

James Srodes is a Washington journalist who wrote for the London Sunday Telegraph for 25 years.

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