Post-charismatic leadership

Can Olmert follow in the footsteps of Eshkol, Truman and Johnson?

By SHLOMO AVINERI
April 1, 2006 23:25
3 minute read.
elections06.article.298

elections06.article.298. (photo credit: )

 
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Ehud Olmert is no Ariel Sharon. He lacks his military experience, his charismatic presence, his brutality and his frightening cunning. And Olmert's image as a sharp-tongued polemicist and wheeler-dealer has not exactly endeared him to the Israeli public. Yet he managed to step, albeit gingerly, into Sharon's shoes in the three months since the latter's incapacitation. Except for boasting, once, that the campaign had already been won - a statement that must have cost Kadima dearly - he did not make any mistakes in the difficult pre-election stewardship as acting prime minister. More than that, he went out on a limb and courageously delineated his credo for further Israeli unilateral steps vis-a-via the Palestinians. Few people, in Israel or abroad, have been thrown into such a cauldron. Olmert won the election, though less resoundingly than he and his new party had expected. He is now his own man. He will now have to stitch together a government coalition under less favorable conditions than the inflated public opinion polls suggested. And the comparison with Sharon will continue to haunt him. YET ONE can recall interesting cases in recent history of apparently grey, run-of-the-mill politicians who succeeded charismatic giants - and won their place in the hearts of their people and in the pages of history. In Israel, it was the lackluster Levi Eshkol, who became prime minister after David Ben-Gurion's angry second - and final - withdrawal from power. The quintessential compromiser, whose favorite drink was said to be "half-coffee, half-tea" turned out to be one of Israel's greatest prime ministers. With apparently no military experience but with a wisdom partly innate and partly gained by experience, he was responsible, as head of the government as well as minister of defense, for preparing the IDF for what turned out to be its most crucial and finest hour: its victory in the 1967 Six Day War. At the same time, he succeeded - despite some visible slips - in orchestrating crucial US support for Israel's decision to go preemptively to war. ON THE world scene there are two examples of post-charismatic leaders who excelled in their roles: Harry S Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson. When the charismatic and popular Franklin Delano Roosevelt died just before the end the war, in April 1945, few people had ever heard the name of his vice president, Harry S Truman. And among those who had, many held a low opinion of his abilities. A party hack, a machine politician from the Midwest, saddled with some shady political deals, a failed businessman - he lacked all the qualities the revered Roosevelt appeared to have: an aristocratic demeanor and polish, wealth and culture, a lofty and at the same time popular rhetorical style, and the love of the nation. Yet Truman turned out to be the American president who stabilized the post-1945 world. He made the wrenching decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan; imposed a tough occupation regime on defeated Germany and Japan, which led them to successful democratic development; rescued Europe's shattered economies through the Marshall Plan, and stood up to Stalin and Soviet Communism. Few people who saw him, almost hapless, at his first international conference at Potsdam ever thought he was of the stuff of which great statesmen are made. And yet he went on to become one of the 20th century's greatest American presidents. Similarly, the uncouth, plebeian Texan Lyndon Johnson succeeded the suave and charismatic John F. Kennedy in one of America's darkest moments. Yet he was able to ensure continuity. And while today he is remembered for the Vietnam debacle, few recall that it was Kennedy - the Prince of Camelot - who dragged the US into the Southeast Asian quagmire. Yet Johnson's greatness lay in that it was he, a Southerner, who pushed through the major transformation of American domestic politics that finally gave American blacks their civil rights as equal citizens of the republic. Civil rights were never at the center of Kennedy's agenda. For all JFK's appeal to the liberal, educated upper middle-class, it was Johnson, a somewhat shady wheeler-dealer, who assured African Americans their place in the sun. He combined vision, earthiness and the political muscle to achieve a resounding victory for equality and human decency. THERE IS no guarantee that Olmert will develop in the mold of Eshkol, Truman and Johnson. On the other hand, for those who find it difficult to wean themselves from larger-than-life charismatic leaders, these examples carry a clear message: Some of the most significant achievements in modern democracies were gained under the stewardship of non-charismatic leaders who were able to combine their own wisdom and judgment with the ability to pursue successfully the responsibilities with which they found themselves saddled by the inscrutable developments of history. The writer is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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