Moty & Udi: On having what it takes

I’m reading Yehuda Avner’s book, The Prime Ministers. Avner worked closely with Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzchak Rabin and Menachem Begin. He held positions as a speechwriter, ambassador to several countries, etc., and met some of the personalities that played a major role in the events of the time. Avner finds good qualities in all of the Prime Ministers for whom he worked — he certainly admired Rabin, but he clearly loved Menachem Begin, a man who understood traditional Judaism as well as the practical realities of governing the state, who was equally at home with diaspora Jews and sabras, a man who lived humbly and was unfailingly polite to everyone he encountered regardless of their importance.

All four of the above put the welfare of the state of Israel and the Jewish people far above above any personal or partisan goals. None of them sought personal aggrandizement or became wealthy during their political careers. Things have changed, haven’t they? Compare Begin with a Peres or an Olmert!

The comparison with American presidents is hard to avoid as well. Most of our recent leaders have been mediocrities without substance, sold to us by campaigns crafted to project appropriate messages to multiple sectors of the electorate, to take advantage of our electoral system, a combination of Madison Avenue,  Hollywood and the arcane world of shadowy political consultants.

In office, they affect the trappings of emperors, flying here in there in astronomically expensive movements with huge entourages. Those that are not multi-millionaires shortly become such.

Some have suggested that excessive grandiosity in the behavior of leaders, the building of massive edifices, etc. are signs of decadence and incipient decay in institutions like corporations or nations. Makes sense to me.

It might be, at least in America, that the selection process makes it almost certain that we will get a vain, cardboard figure, likely to put the lowest forms of partisan politics and his personal well-being above the good of the nation. Because of its small size and the existential nature of the problems it faces, it may still be possible for Israel to have a man like Begin become Prime Minister.

Of course you can’t expect that a prime minister or president can, like Udi, have zero interest in politics. But I think that the most important qualities of a leader have little to do with politics. They are dedication to an ideal which transcends ambition for fame, historical recognition, wealth, etc.; the highest degree of personal integrity, humility, and the ability to maintain those characteristics despite the temptations of office. A tendency to want to think things through oneself rather than rely on experts helps, too, as John F. Kennedy famously found out after the Bay of Pigs.

Examples of leaders with these qualities are Begin and Rabin, and in America, Harry S. Truman. All of them made mistakes, but all of them also displayed the integrity essential for leadership, something rare indeed.

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