The Greatest Leaders

On Independence Day, a statue of Ronald Reagan was unveiled in Grosvenor Square, London, outside the US Embassy, and alongside statues of two other American Presidents: Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight D Eisenhower. Another US President is memorialized in London: there is a statue of Abraham Lincoln, along with the (half American) British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in Parliament Square.

These four: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan and Lincoln would probably be accepted around the world as America’s greatest leaders, though in Eisenhower’s case he qualifies mostly for his pre-presidential career as a general. It is not surprising that London, specifically, does not memorialize Washington and Jefferson, but this is part of a greater pattern. Lincoln – who regularly polls second to Washington among Americans rating their greatest leader – would undoubtedly top a global poll for greatest American President, and quite possibly for greatest political leader of all time. (Note, a plurality, globally, would probably vote for the prophet Mohammed, but Lincoln would win the run-off).

Around the world, Lincoln would be eclipsed in each country by a strictly local figure – Napoleon Bonaparte, in France, for example, or Peter the Great in Russia – but by consistently scoring near the very top in every country, Lincoln would probably triumph overall. Why should the man that Americans rate as their second greatest President emerge as the world’s greatest political leader? When you think about it, Americans are doing exactly what everyone else is: putting Lincoln second, behind a strictly local hero. Washington went to war to set his country free. In this he is similar to Garibaldi, leader of the Italian revolution, or Juan Carlos, the present King of Spain, who peacefully abolished fascism in his country. Lincoln’s achievement is unique. He went to war for a noble principle, of which he was not, personally, a beneficiary. Washington was one the people that Washington freed. Lincoln fought to set other people free.

While the achievements of FDR, Eisenhower, and Reagan may be greater in scale – more millions were freed from the Nazis and Communists than from the southern slaveholders – they were also defending themselves and their own people from imminent threats.

Reagan, nonetheless, stands particularly tall among the peoples of liberated Central and Eastern Europe. Controversial at the time among many in the Western part of the continent, he is now generally accepted as having been right. Many feared his assertive foreign policy would lead to war. It turns out that they were wrong. It is at least arguable that his achievements were even greater than those of FDR and Eisenhower. Defeating the Nazis in a terrible war was of fundamental importance, but defeating Communism while averting the need for global war was, surely, an even happier outcome.

As speech-writer, Peggy Noonan, argues, Reagan was not the great communicator of myth. He communicated great things. This is what his opponents could never grasp. Leaders of such consequence are rare. This columnist feels lucky to have live through the times of Reagan and Thatcher. My father lived through the still more turbulent times of FDR and Churchill, but he had to fight a war for that privilege. That I did not, makes me luckier still.

We can still be moved by the words of Lincoln and Reagan, but let us always recall not the majesty of the language, but the power of their ideas.


Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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