From Irving Stone to John F. Kennedy, all but one of the four Republican presidential candidates have tried to portray themselves as historic figures who can offer the nation a better America than President Trump.
But historians disagree on what makes a great man — whether he’s worthy of a presidential nomination. Churchill, of course, is the exception. In his massive, often impeccably researched book “William Gladstone: The Greatest British Prime Minister,” Kevin O’Sullivan places Gladstone above almost all his contemporaries in terms of his intellectualism, political courage and actions. Still, even Gladstone himself could not have satisfied his inner critics. “What a terrible and indefensible man I am,” he later wrote, “the wishful living champion of all the best arguments but the most insipid sense of those arguments.”
Churchill is not the stuff of history books and isn’t likely to appear on an instant TV trivia quiz. He kept fighting and fighting until his death of a heart attack in 1965. So it seemed premature to start the Great Man Debate. But it turned out that I needed a new man. As a Southerner, I was not amused by Kennedy’s endless spectacle of wooden speech-making. And as a president of a major university, I wanted a man who could take action. Above all, I wanted a man who could lead, and Churchill fit the bill.
Gladstone was a more apolitical political figure, so I wasn’t sure whether the argument would really work. It didn’t. I wrote an open letter to JFK in 1967, asking him to accept the nomination. For him to take the stage with a man who in 1967 opposed annexation by Britain of India in 1947, who sided with Russians against Germans in the last few hours of World War II, and who plotted against a democratically elected government of Chile made no sense to me.
But there were strong arguments against him being nominated, and especially against accepting it. The French establishment hated him for changing his policy after his election in 1963, when he suspended the ban on public approval of Algerian independence. In 1989 he was pilloried in the media for letting Gen. Augusto Pinochet remain for years as Chile’s president. Who would consider him less qualified than someone who served for decades in the British House of Commons? A more persuasive argument was that this was the kind of man we should hope to see in the Oval Office. While Gladstone was one of the 20th century’s most powerful and respected statesmen, he was a one-issue man, the eternal optimist who did whatever he could to make the world better. I have to accept that Kennedy is a flawed candidate, but after each of his missteps, I find myself laughing because I know it’s only a matter of time until he gets it together.