Monday, February 18, 2008

Too Many Convictions

In the December 2007 edition of Imprimis, the historian Paul Johnson writes about what great statesmen have to teach us. Johnson is the author of more than forty books, including Modern Times, A History of the American People, and A History of the Jews.

The best kind of democratic leader has just a few -- perhaps three or four -- central principles to which he is passionately attached and will not sacrifice under any circumstances. This was true, for instance, of Truman, of Konrad Adenauer of Germany, Alcide de Gasperi of Italy, and Robert Schuman of France -- all the outstanding men who did most to raise Europe from the ashes of the Second World War and who built up the West as a bulwark against Soviet advance and a repository of a free civilization. It was also true of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the two outstanding leaders of the next generation who carried on the work. I am not impressed by leaders who have definite views on everything. History teaches it is a mistake to have too many convictions, held with equal certitude and tenacity. They crowd each other out. A great leader is someone who can distinguish between the essential and the peripheral -- between what must be done and what is merely desirable. Mrs. Thatcher really had only three musts: uphold the rule of law at home and abroad; keep government activities to the minimum, and so taxes low; encourage individuals to do as much as they can, as well as they can."

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