HEROES –From Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Churchill and DeGaulle, by Paul Johnson, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, © 2007, ISBN: 978-0-06-114316-8, 299 pp, $25.95.

Review by Del Meyer, MD

Paul Johnson defines a hero as anyone who has been widely, persistently over long periods, and enthusiastically regarded as heroic by a reasonable person, or even an unreasonable one. Johnson has put into this collection one or two heroes and heroines of his own, believing that an element of idiosyncrasy is a legitimate part of hero worship. A hero does not stand still in popular estimations. Hero movements up and down are usually less startling but frequent and continuous.

Tom Jones, in his Whitehall Diaries, quotes Stanley Baldwin, when prime minister, remarking:

Contemporary judgments were illusory; look at Lincoln’s case, how in his lifetime he was thought to be a clumsy lumbering countryman, blundering along without knowing where he was going. Since his death his significance has grown steadily.  [Woodrow] Wilson, on the other hand, was for a short spell looked up to like a god, and his fame will gradually shrink. Lincoln is Wisdom, and Wilson is Knowledge.

In some cases, heroic categories have been downgraded in their entirety. Livingstone, an outstanding hero of the Victorians, and still venerated in the author’s childhood, is now described as a racist. In general, explorers and travelers enjoy fewer kudos than formerly. Amundsen and Peary, even the tragic-heroic Scott of the Antarctic and his self-sacrificing companion Captain Oats, no longer occupy the same rank in the pantheons of schoolboys. All those concerned with the spread of empire—Clive of India, Marshall Lyautey of Morocco, Cecil Rhodes, Lawrence of Arabia—are now suspect.

This book is a small selection of heroes and heroines who still evoke wonder or admiration or respect or in some cases sympathy. Since 2008 is an election year and President Reagan is alluded to by many of the candidates, we shall focus on Section 13, The Heroic Trinity Who Tamed the Bear: Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul II.

According to Paul Johnson, three people won the Cold War, dismantled the soviet empire and eliminated Communism as a malevolent world force: Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. They worked in unofficial concert and we shall perhaps never know which of the three was most important. John Paul effectively undermined the Evil Empire (Reagan’s phrase) in its weakest link, Poland, where the process of disintegration began. Margaret Thatcher reinvigorated the capitalist system by starting a worldwide movement to reduce the public sector by a new term, “privatization,” and by destroying militant trade unionism. Reagan gave back to the United States the self-confidence it had lost, and at the same time tested Soviet power to destruction. All were heroes, each in a different way.

In Dr. Johnson’s own words: “Reagan interested me the most because he created an entirely new model of statesmanship: well suited to a late twentieth-century media democracy. And he was hugely entertaining to watch in action. He endeared himself to me the first time we met by getting flustered, glancing at the six-by-four cue card he always kept in his left-hand suit pocket, and saying: ‘Good to see you again, Paul.’ The second time he shook hands with me in front of a battery of press photographers (I still have the picture) and whispered: ‘Don’t look at me-look at the cameras.’ Good advice from an old pro. Reagan did not try to smile all the time, like many American politicians. He never smiled at nothing. His smile was an event with meaning, which preceded or followed a joke. Usually he was serious. Government, he seemed to say, was a serious business. So serious we’re inclined to take it too seriously. Then would follow a joke, and a laugh. But even when emphasizing the seriousness of it all, Reagan never gave the impression of being nervous, or gloomy, or worried. He was at ease with himself. I have never come across a person, certainly not in public life, who was so thoroughly and fundamentally at ease with himself. By that I do not mean casual or flippant or devil-may-care: he was none of those things. But he was relaxed, unharassed, quietly confident in anything he had to do. And, being like that, you did not have to dig very deep to find happiness. He was a happy hero. He liked, and tried, to communicate his happiness, and normally succeeded. He made me think that happiness ought to be part of the equipment of a hero, even though it usually isn’t.

“The United States which Ronald Reagan took over early in 1981 was not at ease with itself. Indeed, it was deeply unhappy at a public level. The strong presidency of Richard Nixon had been destroyed, leaving a vacuum of power. Into that vacuum stepped, insofar as anyone or anything did, a divided and leaderless Congress, abrogating to itself by law or in fact duties which rightly belonged in the executive branch. President Jerry Ford did nothing to stop this unconstitutional larceny. He had never been elected and did not have a sense of rightful authority. He was not at ease with himself-far from it-but he was easygoing, diffident, amiable, anxious to avoid rows that might end in a challenge to his credentials. His successor, Jimmy Carter, was a natural one-term president at a meager time, who found it impossible to strike a national note. Both men ran a low-key presidency, stripping both the White House and its internal motions of any element of grandeur. Ford stopped the Marine band playing ‘Hail to the Chief’ when the president arrived. Carter let it be known that he worked in the Oval Office in a sweater, and he encouraged his staff to ‘dress down’ (the first time the phrase was used). [He once remarked, “Why should I have reserve parking? I’m no better than other Americans and should have to search out my own parking stall.]  All ceremony associated with the White House and presidential movements was cut to the minimum. Gradually the heart of American government acquired a slipshod air. Ford was a non-hero, Carter an anti-hero. ‘Jimmy,’ as he liked to be called, despised heroics, or said he did, and anyway, was incapable of them. His was a painfully unheroic presidency, culminating in a humiliating disaster to American arms in Iran. [He also said most people didn’t understand the many decisions he had to make in the oval office. What he failed to say, was that he was referring to himself.]

From the start, Ronald Reagan reversed this process of American self-effacement. In his eight years as governor of California, he had raised the administrative profile of the state with the world’s eighth-largest economy above the usual seedy city hall level. Now, entering a new role, he determined to play it to the full. He had the best of all precedents in stressing the formality and even the grandeur of the most important elective office in the world-the example of George Washington. He also had an able and enthusiastic assistant, in the shape of John F. W. Rogers, the young official in charge of White House protocol and ceremony. Rogers was an expert on everything to do with presidential history and all that was most seemly. He provided the costume and sets, as it were, for the Reagan presidency. Back came the solemn band music and specially ‘Hail to the Chief.’ Back came the Herald Trumpeters, from the U.S. Army, an institute created by General Eisenhower in his White House term. A special ceremonial fanfare was created for them entitled ‘A Salute to a New Beginning.’ Under Reagan’s benign approval, Rogers rewrote protocol for all White House formal occasions, stressing ceremony, even redesigning the bunting used in presidential platforms. There was huge reviewing of troops by the president personally. All visitors, especially heads of state and government, were now suitably greeted. The internal dress code of the White House went back to “smart”—suits, ties, white shirts. So Reagan began his rule by putting back the clock in a visible, audible way.

“He had certain core beliefs in which he passionately believed, from which he could not be budged, and which had a bearing on all he aspired to do. They were essentially moral beliefs, to do with justice, honesty, fair dealing, courage and what he would call ‘decency.’ In political terms they translated into standing up to the Soviets and matching them-if possible, outmatching them-in weapons; cutting taxes; freeing Americans from unnecessary burdens; and enlarging freedom whenever consistent with safety and justice. There was no shifting Reagan on these matters. He clung to his core views with extraordinary obstinacy. They were, by and large, right, and he could communicate them with extraordinary skill.

“After nearly sixty years of writing history, and also of observing contemporary history makers in action, I am convinced that successful government depends less on intelligence and knowledge than on simplicity-that is, the ability to narrow aims to three or four important tasks which are possible, reasonable and communicable. Reagan had that formula, and the fact that he did enabled him to be a success, and a true hero, with few if any of the qualities which most constitutional experts would have rated indispensable.

“He appeared incapable of speaking coherently about the simplest matters without reference to the cue cards in his left pocket. In some ways he was ill-equipped to run anything, let alone the mightiest nation on earth. He was nearly seventy when he got to the White House, and three months later an assassin’s bullet just missed his heart. He was deaf and sometimes could not hear what his staff was telling him, even with the volume of his hearing aid switched right up. He was known in showbiz as ‘a quick study,’ and as a rule learned his lines well. As a B-movie actor, and a successful and reliable one, he had been a stickler for strict studio discipline, disliking people who were late on the set as ‘disruptive’ and ‘unprofessional.’ He believed in learning lines and following the script, and obeying directions, so that in some ways his staff found him very compliant and easy to work with. But when tired, as he often was, especially after lunch, he got things wrong.”

Margaret Thatcher worked very closely with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The Anglo-American alliance was never stronger or the special relationship closer. They saw eye to eye on all the big international issues and each tried to run the same kind of government at home. Each proved that will is all-important in running a country in combination with a few central principles which are just.

But Reagan and Thatcher were very different. Reagan was a very masculine man and Thatcher a very feminine woman. Even though commentators tried to invest her with masculine characteristics, Thatcher was a woman to her inner most core and loved it.  She invariably took full advantage of any feminine privilege going from tears to tantrums, while grabbing any rights denied to women which were hers as prime minister. Given a choice, however, she always preferred being with a man rather than with a woman. She would be civil to a woman who was important in her own right. But wives got short shrift.

She was a woman first. Johnson didn’t recall ever seeing her wear trousers. She took more trouble over her hair than most women. She was modest like Reagan. When Johnson told her there are only three things a government must do because no one else can: external defense, internal order and running an honest currency, she repeated these often. Her career in the Commons was marked by unusual strokes of good fortune. Her capturing the leadership was a pure stroke of luck. Her luck continued as she took on the militant trade unions. The male predecessors had tried and failed. With a national mandate, she proceeded to cut the unions down to size. Johnson feels that any male would have lost again.

Thatcher was the only British leader since Churchill to have a perceptible influence on world events, both directly and through her high standing in Washington. Her status as hero is unquestionable. She tended to see the world in black-and-white terms and labeled the current cast as “goodies” and “baddies.”

Thatcher was on a resolute course of righteous action. That was why she loved Pope John Paul II, the third member of the blessed trinity of heroes who destroyed the Communist monolith. John Paul II  may have been the most important of the of blessed trinity because he understood the Soviet empire on the ground in Poland. By giving his moral and, to some extent his physical support to the trades union movement of Lech Walesa, and by making himself the active spiritual leader of the united Polish people, he undermined the empire fatally.

Once his ghostly leadership on the actual soil of Poland was firmly established, there was never any possibility of Soviet imperial rule reestablishing itself without a bloodbath of the kind not even Brezhnev would have been prepared to face, and all his successors flunked totally. In many ways it was the most impressive display of papal political power since the time of Innocent III in the early thirteenth century, and gave the true answer to Stalin’s brutal (and foolish) question: “How many divisions has the Pope?”

Johnson does not dwell on the Pope at length since he calls this a book on heroes and not saints. But he does give us a perspective of the current political turmoil in our country and the world. As our current presidency sinks even lower than the ratings of our Congress, both Reagan with the Iran-Contras scandals and Thatcher went out under a cloud. However, both came back with high popularity ratings. It’s hard to enter Washington, DC without flying into Reagan International.

Brian Kennedy, President of Claremont Institute, points out that Islam has predicted a world without America and Zionism. The Middle East feels these goals are achievable and the slogan is being used in the Arab world. He suggests we think of 911 as prelude with suicide airplanes running into buildings on American Soil.

He suggests we consider the following scenario: An ordinary looking freighter ship heading toward New York City or Los Angeles launches a missile from its hull or from a canister lowered into the sea. The missile hits a densely populated area and a million people are incinerated. The ship is sunk and no one claims responsibility. There is no firm evidence as to who sponsored the attack, and thus no one against whom to launch a counterstrike.

He then suggests that we consider a second scenario: Let us say the freighter ship launches a nuclear armed Shahab-3 missile off the cost of the U.S. and it explodes 300 miles over Chicago, creating an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Gamma rays scatter in what is called the Compton effect, and three pulses disable consumer electronics, some automobiles, and, most importantly, the hundreds of large transformers that distribute power throughout the U.S. All of our lights, refrigerators, TVs and radios stop running. We have no communication. This is what is called an EMP attack, and such an attack would effectively throw America back into the early nineteenth century—200 years ago. Perhaps hundreds of millions of us will die from lack of food and water and as a result of social breakdown.

With the threat of militant Islam and the resurgence of communism, will we elect a leader who has close ties with both and whose father was a Marxist? Who the Islamists hope will be our next leader? Or will we go with the military experience and proven leadership experience and determination of a team that comes closest to the Reagan and Thatcher team to rescue our country and the world from Islamic annihilation? One more determined than any Communist Bear that Reagan and Thatcher brought down. Will Stalin’s threat that they will overtake America without ever firing a shot come true? On Tuesday, November 4, the most important election in America’s history will determine our future, whether security and freedom or fate. We must let our vote and voices be heard. There may not be a second chance.