Choosing our best (and worst) Presidents is somewhat of a fool’s errand. This is because different time and situations demand different skills and traits in a leader. Also, crises tend to bring out the best (or worst) in leaders, and the absence of a crisis leaves untested one who might be a great leader, or abject failure. For example, in the United States, Presidents like James Monroe, the so-called Gilded Age Presidents, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge held the office in generally placid times. I’m sure there are some historians who would find a point of disagreement on this last point, but we are talking about relativity here. Author Steven Vincent Benet wrote an interesting short story “The Curfew Tolls” speculating about the fate of a well known historic figure who was born twenty years before his actual time. Nevertheless, because the human condition and environment is so dynamic and unpredictable, most nations and societies have at least minor crises throughout their existence, so some valid comparisons can be made. Occasionally, grave situations arise which demand great response.
Since the Norman Conquest, England, which became the lead entity of the United Kingdom including Wales, Scotland, and Ireland (all or part), had monarchs and prime ministers who were the leaders of the realm. The monarch, though at least since the Magna Carta never entirely absolute, was the acknowledged chief executive. This changed with the accession of the Hanoverians in 1714, the first one of which never learned to speak English. Since George I’s reign, the prime ministers, officially styled First Lord of the Treasury, have been the executive authority. The misdeeds of George III recited in our Declaration of Independence were the result of polices suggested by the Prime Ministers who served during that time. The monarchs and PMs have been a mixed lot as far as competence and opportunities to respond to crises go. Because of the near catastrophic consequences they faced, three stand out above the rest. Two of whom are women.
I am writing about Queen Elizabeth I, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher.
Elizabeth reigned for the 45 years between 1558 and 1603. She inherited a country that was fractured by religious strife, economic and social ills, and beset by foreign powers, notably Spain, France, and the French clients in Scotland. In an era where women were hardly given credit for any ability, the Queen defused the religious strife, presided over new prosperity, and defeated the mighty Spanish war machine. She cleverly brought the Scots into permanent alliance, and unification into Great Britain a century later, by naming her cousin, King James of Scotland as her successor. The supreme historical irony is that her father Henry VIII nearly tore England apart in order to have a male heir because he feared chaos would ensue if a mere woman succeeded to the throne.
As for Winston Churchill, no one has summed it up better than New York Times journalist C. L. Sulzberger “Remember him, for he saved you all.” For now, enough said.
With her death yesterday, Margaret Thatcher is officially in the pantheon of great leaders. I can hardly write anything about her that won’t be written by better hands than mine over the next several days – over and over again. It is fitting in a sense that the monarch she served is also named Elizabeth. Emerging from a real winter of discontent, the lioness roared. After three decades of decline, Britain became Great again.