'For Valour': Lesson From Churchill

'For Valour': Lesson From Churchill
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On Veterans Day with our daily news pages appearing nearly indistinguishable from the celebrity gossip pages, it is worth taking a moment to recall a different time, and a different form of celebrity.

 In February 1952, Winston Churchill paid tribute to the deceased King George VI with the words, “for valour.”

There was probably no greater tribute to make, for Churchill, following his mentor Jan Smuts, had said that there was no higher virtue for a leader, or anyone else, to possess. Both Churchill and the King respected it. Both had seen combat and death; both had overcome disability; both had struggled with the perception, at earlier points in their careers, that they were the wrong men in the wrong place at the wrong time; both, together, led their nation to victory in a terrible war.

What does it mean to be valorous today? The quality is usually ascribed to unsung or everyday heroes: rescue teams during a natural disaster; soldiers in a distant firefight; survivors of a private tragedy who, many years later, find the will to speak publicly about it.

Those are the people now honored on magazine covers, television talk shows, and feature films – and, increasingly, in national politics. The phenomenon is not new: as Antoine Lilti shows in an excellent book – The Invention of Celebrity – it dates back a few centuries and is more complex than many of us realize. But it is different from the kind of celebrity we used to know in our leaders.

Churchill, for example, did more than cultivate power and fame during his long ministerial career. He was noteworthy in another sense: He knew his limits and was not afraid to seek help from others, namely from his wife, a small group of aides, and, perhaps most tellingly, the King. He extended his celebrity to others in ways that not only compensated for his deficiencies but also complemented and augmented his ability to lead.

Few of today’s leaders, whether or not they rate as celebrities, possess this ability. They tend to be self-absorbed, timorous, and calculating, sometimes to the point of paralysis. They take few risks, especially intellectual risks requiring imagination and perseverance. When they do exhibit what appears to be boldness, it is usually to defend themselves against an attack or to demean an adversary with an assertiveness that is deployed to mask weakness or indecision.

Churchill’s enemies confused all that with the quality for which he is now best known: his determination in the face of adversity. They saw this as a romantic, and dangerous, form of obstinacy. A few also saw it, probably with some justification, as simple narcissism.

The King’s alliance with his Prime Minister contained, and may have solved that problem. For the King had once held a similar view about Churchill, who, after all, had supported his disgraced brother during the abdication crisis and was long mistrusted and disliked by the King’s father, George V. To have won the King’s trust after all that says much about the courage of both men.

More to the point, it gave Churchill the legitimacy he needed to command the nation. Alongside the King, he was able to persuade the British people that fighting for total victory in a war that many, if not most, of them had neither sought nor felt they could easily win, was the only way ahead. 

A perception of legitimacy is as important for leaders as it is for policies. Yet legitimacy sometimes comes from unexpected places. Another good example is the partnership between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in negotiating a peaceful end to the Cold War. Both men at the time were popular at home. Both were, celebrity status notwithstanding, experienced politicians. Both had what we would call a strong negotiating position, for popularity makes for political leverage. But each lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the nomenklatura of the other.

Then came something short and simple: a statement by Margaret Thatcher that Gorbachev was a man with whom she could do business. The imprimatur broke the ice, at least on the American side, for talks and progress to begin.

Churchill and George VI were more than partners in a negotiation; they were political, intellectual, and spiritual allies, just as Reagan and Thatcher had been. Successful partnerships require, but alliances bequeath, legitimacy. They do the same with courage.

If America’s future leaders continue to reach high office by way of Hollywood and television, they will probably continue to need all the legitimacy, and help, they can get. Celebrity only travels so far. A wise and brave leader knows how important the former quality is, and knows what he or she must do to earn it – starting with the humble capacity to ask.

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