An Interview in CHOSUN ILBO

April 27, 2018

A recent interview in CHOSUN ILBO, a leading South Korean newspaper, about Waller Newell's book 'The Soul of a Leader: Character Conviction, and Ten Lessons in Political Greatness', which recently appeared in a Korean edition. The original English version of the Q and A is included below. These themes are continued in Newell's recent book TYRANTS: A HISTORY OF POWER, INJUSTICE AND TERROR, which will also be published in a Korean language version.  

 

 

1.    The name of the book is ‘The Soul of a Leader’. Why did you use the word ‘Soul’? What can be defined as the leader‘s soul?


Every political leader possesses certain innate qualities, abilities and character traits that are shaped by experience,  developing over time into a recognizable public personality and a vision of what is best for their country in the present and the future.  So the soul of a leader is a combination of their own natural leanings and aptitudes and what experience teaches them.  In my view the best leaders are “trimmers,” a term coined by George Savile, a 17th century English statesman.  A trimmer is a leader who tries to pilot the ship of state on a middle course that will avoid the extremes of left and right.  Sometimes it will be necessary to tack to the left, sometimes to the right, in order to maintain an even keel and steady course.  Winston Churchill thought that Abraham Lincoln was one of history’s greatest trimmers.  Lincoln was always against slavery, and bent on getting rid of it.  But he had to make tactical compromises in order to keep his long-range aim alive.  At one point, for instance, before the Civil War, he would have been satisfied to have limited the spread of slavery beyond the South, where it would eventually die out.  For this willingness to compromise, he was widely despised by both the South, who resented any limitation on slavery’s expansion, and by  Abolitionists in the North, who thought he was a gutless compromiser not committed to the ideal of getting rid of slavery completely.  But in the long run, that’s exactly what he accomplished. 

 

2.   Is there a difference between past leadership and current leadership change?

 

In the Western democracies, and especially the United States, there is very little aura of mystique separating leaders from the public at large.  Up to and including Franklin Roosevelt,  American presidents very rarely spoke to the press.  Their private lives were completely off limits.   During the entire period of his presidency, the American public was unaware that Roosevelt was confined to a wheel-chair with incurable polio.  The press knew, but they concealed it, because otherwise the American people might have been demoralized that the man leading them out of the Great Depression

and through World War II was in such poor health.   For better or worse, presidents’ vices were also carefully hidden from view — the press co-operated in hiding John F. Kennedy’s many sexual dalliances while he was in the White House.   Today, the feeling of distance between the leader and the public has almost completely broken down in our atmosphere of 24/7 news coverage.  You can say this is a gain for the truth.  But it also makes it difficult for leaders to inspire people, because everything about them is so familiar — for instance, Bill Clinton revealing to TV interviewer Larry King what brand of underwear he wore.  In the last years of his presidency, it seemed like Barack Obama was on TV every day, to the point that it robbed him of his original reputation as an orator and turned him into a bore.

 

 

 

3. Your book emphasizes that ‘Personality (or Character)’ of leader is more important than ‘brain’ of leader. Why ‘Personality’ is the most important virtue about leader?

 

I think it‘s hard to figure out the personality of someone else even in close friends. Then, how voters can understand the nature personality of candidates? Sometimes their personalities merge with their political missions in such a way that the public at large feel that they truly know these leaders as human beings. Great leaders such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill had very striking and vivid personalities, ways of speaking, dressing, and a sense of humor, that made people feel that they knew them on a personal level. Lincoln loved to tell jokes and tall tales. Churchill always had a cigar clamped in his mouth, and a flamboyant and irreverent wit. Margaret Thatcher had her inevitable purse and enormous ship-prow of a face. When I write that the character of a leader may be more important than his or her brains, I mean that pure intelligence, an extremely high IQ, or a lengthy formal education, do not necessarily translate into great political leadership. Arthur Balfour was one of Britain’s best-educated Prime Ministers, steeped in philosophy and the classics. Winston Churchill, by contrast, did not even attend a university. But would anyone doubt who proved the greater leader? Lincoln had very little formal schooling, he didn’t go to college — his main education came from reading Shakespeare and his memory of his mother reading to him from the Bible. Sometimes courage, self-discipline, a strong moral code, an insight into history, and shrewd instincts about people can be of more importance to a leader than formal education or abstract intellectual ability.

 

4. In your opinion, Who is the best American president ever? and why? Also, Who is the best leader in the world history?

 

I would have to say Abraham Lincoln was the best American president, for the reasons I mentioned before — he was the classic “trimmer.” Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose novel UNCLE TOM’S CABIN probably did more to make average Americans aware of the horrors of slavery in the South than any other source, made a very perceptive remark about Lincoln after she got to meet him in the White House. She said that people mistook Lincoln’s affable and gentle manner, his apparent openness to disagreement, as a sign of weakness, a sign that he could be pressured into changing his mind. In reality, she said, Lincoln’s inner soul was like coiled steel. Nothing could move him from his convictions. He could afford to be affable and seemingly open-minded when listening to contrary views, because he had no intention whatever of changing those convictions or the policies necessitated by them. As for the best leader in the history of the world, there are just too many contenders — Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, the list goes on — to single out one. In calling them great leaders, we must acknowledge that they were capable of employing unscrupulous, even violent Machiavellian means in order to achieve good things for their subjects. A very complex puzzle!

 

 

5. Recently, In america election, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton and become the president-elect. How do you think about outcome of election? What is Trump’s character? What do you think the leader Trump should be?

 

I never thought Trump would be the nominee of the Republican party, and I never thought he would become President.  Having been wrong about everything up to now, I’ve decided to suspend judgement on how I think President Trump will govern.   I don’t think we know enough yet about his character, either, because he has no political past.  Here’s what we can say:  Trump campaigned on the basis of isolationism, nativism and protectionism.  These three policies have been constant features in American political history all the way back to the Founding.  Jefferson was an isolationist.  Both political parties, and especially the Republicans, were fierce protectionists all the way until the end of World War II.   Nativism and xenophobia are also recurring patterns, beginning with the Know-Nothings, the Palmer Raids, the internment of the Japanese and so on.  So Trump isn’t inventing anything new, merely reverting to patterns from American politics that we haven’t seen for quite a while, and putting them together in a different and as yet unpredictable way.   He is a kind of folk populist, a would-be champion of the downtrodden, the little man.  His predecessors include Andrew Jackson,  Huey Long and George Wallace.  What Trump sensed sooner and more keenly than anyone else was that the American working and rural classes were no longer buying the Ronald Reagan message of global free trade, limited government, and military intervention abroad, policies that had been continued by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  Trump’s election signals the end of the Age of Reagan

 

6. Do you know the recent situation in Korea? The recent situation in Korea is as follow links. Tens of millions of citizens go out on the streets demanding the resignation of the president. Who would be the leader for such a situation in Korea? 

Which of the presidents of the United States should be able to give Korea lessons?

 

It’s difficult for someone who is not a citizen of your country, and observing the situation from so far away, to offer much insight.  If I understand the news reports correctly, it does appear that the constitutional processes of Korea are working as they were designed.  The president’s resignation will lead to the election of a new leader, and an impeachment trial will follow some time after that.   So, presumably, since a new president will be in place, however traumatic or divisive the impeachment trial may be, it won’t seriously disrupt the orderly operation of government.   As for the tens of millions of people in the streets demanding the current president’s resignation, that is a legitimate exercise of popular protest and dissent, as long as it remains peaceful.  It looks to me as if Korea’s constitutional processes will be able to deal with this unfortunate scandal in much the same way as would the American constitution, for example, the resignation of Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal, which had generated huge public protest, and the smooth transition of power to his vice-president, Gerald Ford.  As for who the new leaders in Korea should be, I would trust to the democratic process to work that out.  Every nation’s experiences are different, and I don’t think I should presume to suggest any lessons for Korea from American history.

 

7. The professor‘s book recently released in Korea is getting more attention because of the recent situation in Korea. If you want, you feel free to write your own words to Korean readers.

 

I’ve never been to Korea, but I’ve had a number of Korean students over the years.  Korea seems to me a bastion of free-market prosperity and democratic self-government in Asia, in marked contrast to its neighbor to the north.  No society is perfect, including the U.S., but Korea appears to me to be a genuine success story.   The handling of the current crisis, the fact that a president can resign and a new one take her place without sparking chaos or tanks in the streets, is proof of this.

 

 

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