I just finished Steven Hayward's marvelous new book Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders. It is a short, readable, fascinating little book that I highly recommend.

I've read a number of books about (and by) both Churchill and Reagan and still found much new and interesting in Steve's new book. The central purpose of his book, as I take it, uses Churchill and Reagan as case studies to focus on the question of the extent to which great leaders are born versus made. And, more importantly, to the extent that great leaders are made, what is it about their life experiences that "make" them who they are? One good thing about having a central focus on a particular theme is that it permits Hayward to ignore many other factors that turn out to be irrelevant to his central theme, allowing him to move forward through his argument directly. He notes among other things that Reagan quoted Churchill more than any other President.

The first half of the book focuses on their personal backgrounds, examining the factors that Hayward sees as the key elements that formed their characters and intellects. Hayward makes the provocative argument that one key factor for both of them was that they were both largly "self-educated" in economics, history, and politics. Hayward argues that neither of them had overbearing professors telling them what they shouldn't read--a graduate school reading list without the professors telling them why what they were reading was bunk, is the way Hayward puts it. (Hayward notes that Bastiat was a particular favorite of Reagan's). He notes several other similarities, including the fact that they were both party-switchers during their lives, noting that they both claimed that it was more important to change parties in order to remain true to one's principles than the alternative.

The second half of the book turns to an examination of the similarities of the two in outlook and policy. Hayward particularly focuses on the two as bookends of the Cold War--Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech providing one bookend and Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall" speech providing the other. Very interesting discussion of the views held by both on the essential nature of Communism.

In the end, Hayward concludes that the indvidual capacity for "greatness" is fundamentally about character and that greatness in political leadership manifests itself in the exercise of prudence and judgement in governing. In this sense, I infer from Hayward's argument that there is a link between conservatism, in an Oakeshottian or Burkean sort of sense, and greatness. He seems to suggest that there is an inherent link between political greatness and prudence in leadership that matters at least as much as ideas. Somewhat controversially (in my mind at least), Hayward argues that FDR and the New Deal were actually conservative in nature, which is why Reagan could support it throughout his life without fear of contradiction of his principles (Hayward distinguishes what he sees as the essential conservatism of the New Deal versus the later Great Society of LBJ, and argues that Reagan opposed the latter but not the former). Hayward suggests that liberalism/socialism is grounded in abstract ideas and ideology, rather than prudence and gradualism, thus liberal leaders are less likely to be "great" than is a politician of a conservative stripe. I'm not sure whether that is true, but it is an interesting thesis (and explains why he wants to define FDR as inherently conservative, as he wants to acknowledge FDR as a "great" leader too). Conservatives motivated by abstract ideas would presumably be subject to the same criticism (Newt Gingrich perhaps as an example).

Lurking in the background throughout is Abraham Lincoln. Hayward received his PhD from Claremont Graduate School, and the intellectual influence of Harry Jaffa is fairly clear throughout the book. Hayward notes that many of the similarities shared by Churchill and Reagan were also present in Lincoln. This perspective also seems to motivate Hayward's central idea that the seeds of greatness are planted in individual character rather than political ideology.

Overall, an absolutely delightful and interesting book. For one who has read much about both figures, I still found much in here that I hadn't previously seen (including a number of great quotes) or thought about. But I think it is also a terrific introduction to both figures for those who haven't read much about the two men. In addition, it is short and very well written. I highly recommend it as an addition to your summer reading list.


Some of the Commenters have asked how Hayward defines greatness (p. 17):

What is greatness, especially political greatness? In three thousand years we have not surpassed the understanding of Aristotle, who summed up political greatness as the ability to translate wisdom into action on behalf of the public good. To be able to do this, Aristotle argued, requires a combination of moral viture, practical wisdom, and public-spiritedness. This is exceedingly problematic, as is evident from the difficulty Aristotle has explaining it. One must know not only what is good for oneself but also what is good for others. It is not enough merely to be wise or intelligent in the ordinary IQ-score sense; in fact, Aristotle goes to great lengths to show that practical wisdom "is at the opposite pole from intlligence." One must have moral viture, judgment, and public spirit in a fine balance, and these traits must be euqlly matched to the particular circumstances of time and place. It is easy to go wrong, even with the best intentions.

Some Comments suggest that in describing Hayward's thesis I am implicitly or automatically agreeing with him. I thought it was obvious that I was just describing Hayward's thesis, not necessarily endorsing it, but if so, I do so now.