Just as the summer beach reading season arrives, Americans’ disdain for leaders at various levels of government seems, like that ocean wave out in the distance, to be cresting. Providing examples of potential relief from all-too-many dunces and lesser lights across our political landscape comes Daniel J. Mahoney, professor emeritus at Assumption University, where he taught political philosophy and related subjects for 35 years. Mr. Mahoney deserves wider recognition as one of our finest public intellectuals.
Mr. Mahoney offers us eight succinct but history-packed chapters on genuine statesmen, his often original observations woven throughout. The larger-than-life leaders given the Mahoney treatment include Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln, Charles de Gaulle and Vaclav Havel, with additional commentary on Aristotle, Napoleon, Cicero, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
The reader cannot avoid comparisons between the departed giants deconstructed, and our 21st century, where apparently all of the leaders of today’s great nations pale in comparison. Aside from the courage and wisdom so obvious in the book’s subjects, most committed their philosophies of government and leadership to the written word, giving us lessons for successful statecraft, but also giving themselves the gift of immortality.
Imagine even the best of our elected leaders in 2022 echoing Burke’s call for a “… manly, moral, regulated liberty.” Someone trying to discern “their” gender this month is not likely to rise to such principles.
My own impressions of one leader have shifted, thanks to Mr. Mahoney’s chapter on him. He is de Gaulle, whom I appreciated as a French nationalist, wartime leader and anti-totalitarian. But I resented his seeming ingratitude for the irreplaceable sacrifices made for his nation by the leaders of the United States, and most especially by many thousands of young U.S. servicemen who gave their final measure of devotion to defeat the Nazis and liberate de Gaulle’s nation.
De Gaulle was devoted to his disabled daughter and was inconsolable when she died in her 20s. His love for France was genuine, and perhaps balancing his outsized ego was his daily arrival at Mass to take communion.
A sometimes irritant to American and NATO leaders, there was never doubt as to de Gaulle’s stalwart opposition to despotism.
Other leaders profiled were likewise influenced by Christendom, with Havel an exception, having been largely educated under communism in then-Czechoslovakia. A playwright and poet, he longed for Western-style freedom and democratic government, only a few hours’ drive away in Germany or Austria. Eventually, he was elected president, unanimously, by the Federal Assembly, and a year later by the citizenry.
Mr. Mahoney does not engage in hagiography, a word he invokes several times, and he acknowledges the flaws in each of his subjects. But his research and writing leave us with a deeper appreciation for these statesmen. Even when self-taught, as Lincoln was, what makes these individuals genuinely iconic is their classical readings and educations, immersing themselves in the principles of liberty and sovereignty, yet becoming inspiring leaders who achieved great results through action, their force of will and often relentless determination.
Are there potential Ciceros, Lincolns, Churchills or Reagans already percolating through our political system, or, surely less likely, in academia? Perhaps there are some back-benchers who have greatness within them and we can hope for professors who can simultaneously advance the great western values on campus, as well as survive today’s intolerant, toxic university culture.
Those who aspire to leadership and hope that an opportunity for greatness might emerge ought to read “The Statesman as Thinker” and retain it for future reference.
• Herbert W. Stupp is the editor of Gipperten.com. After serving in the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations, he was an NYC commissioner in Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Cabinet,1994-2002.
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The Statesman as Thinker, Portraits of Greatness, Courage and Moderation
By Daniel J. Mahoney; Encounter Books, New York, NY;
$30.99; 231 pages; 2022.
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