It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day attacks of a political campaign: Which candidate is mean to dogs versus which candidate has eaten them, and so forth. But sometimes it’s worthwhile to take a step back and remember how great politicians of the past carried out their craft. A book reprinted last week gives us just such a chance.
Winston Churchill’s Great Contemporaries was first published in the 1930s, when Churchill was in the political wilderness. He was still a member of the British Parliament at the time, but he held no cabinet rank. His warnings about German rearmament were mostly being ignored.
To fill his time and to earn his keep, Churchill focused on writing books and shorter essays for newspapers. Great Contemporaries is a collection of dozens of such essays, all written about powerful and influential people. It’s edited by James W. Muller, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska-Anchorage and an expert on Winston Churchill.
Most of the people profiled by Churchill are politicians. “One mark of a great man is the power of making lasting impressions upon people he meets,” Churchill begins his essay about Joseph Chamberlain. “Another is to have handled matters during his life that the course of after events is continuously affected by what he did.” That’s a timely reminder in the midst of a political election that’s expected to transform the United States.
It’s also worth noting that many of the leaders Churchill profiled in the mid-1930s were not actually his “contemporaries.” They were political leaders from the Victorian or Edwardian era of British politics and had been out of power for decades before Churchill picked up his pen. It’s almost as if Churchill thought the greatest of British leaders had already passed from the scene when, ironically, he was on the cusp of joining that pantheon.
If a writer set out, this year, to complete a similar project, he’d certainly draft essays on Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. He’d want to include essays about some powerful and effective, if often misguided, politicians such as Tip O’Neill, Deng Xiaoping, and Boris Yeltsin. But he probably wouldn’t write about an actual “contemporary” as a great leader.
That doesn’t mean the U.S. is at the “end of history,” of course. There are a number of potential transformational leaders on the horizon who aim to take us forward by returning to our constitutional roots. Representative Paul Ryan (R–WI) has produced a sensible budget and vows to “Save the American Idea.” Senator Jim DeMint (R–SC) is working to reduce spending and rein in federal power. “DeMint may be the junior senator from South Carolina, but here we call him the senior senator from the Heritage Foundation,” Heritage president Ed Feulner quipped three years ago. And millions of everyday Americans have organized into Tea Party groups and worked to take back the country they love.
Muller recently told a group that writing his essays helped Churchill to realize the “limits of politics.” Watching the 2012 political campaign may help Americans realize the same thing. But it may also encourage us to do more to return to our political roots. And that would be a big step in the right direction.