Death of the Literary Statesman
It is hard to imagine two personality types more different than the political man and the man of letters. One observes from the shadows. The other basks in the spotlight. One is a truth teller. The other a people pleaser. If Michel Houellebecq’s unkempt appearance adds to his authorial mystique, Emmanuel Macron’s tailored suits and winning smile might be his greatest political assets.
Yet literary men have made great leaders and vice versa in the past. By ‘literary’ I exclude those who have penned autobiographies (sorry, Obama) and other vanity projects like Bill Clinton’s co-written political thriller. I am referring to those grounded in the classics. Those who understand human nature and can say something about it in the form of poetry or prose.
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa were both candidates for their countries’ presidencies. But Britain is the only country which can boast being led by a recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature (Winston Churchill). Benjamin Disraeli—the original One Nation Tory and according to some the only genius to have served as British Prime Minister—wrote novels even while he was in office.
In the United States, John Quincy Adams found time to write poetry around his legal and political careers. Roosevelt, a prolific author, could hold his own in conversations on literature with the likes of Robert Frost. Abraham Lincoln never produced a literary work but drew upon Shakespeare—of whom he was a lifetime admirer—in his highly poetic speeches.
In Australia, Billy Hughes was a lifelong fan of literature. Alfred Deakin wrote poetry and a five-act play. Robert Menzies wrote fiction and poetry for Melbourne University Magazine. And John Curtin, who led Australia through the Second World War, said: “Every man should read poetry—for the good of his soul.” Curtin even recited a stanza from Algernon Swinburne’s poem ‘The Eve of Revolution’ after declaring war on Japan.
In France, François Mitterrand and Georges Pompidou frequently held court with the leading writers of their eras. Emmanuel Macron and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing—who was president in the 1970s—both wrote romantic novels (Macron’s unpublished work is reportedly ‘steamy’). But of all the Fifth Republic presidents, Charles de Gaulle was the only literary talent, having written commendable works both of fiction and nonfiction.
Could we see another De Gaulle, Disraeli or Deakin—men of letters adored for their erudition—in our lifetimes? The signs are not good.
Boris Johnson was a successful journalist before entering politics and is an enthusiast of classical literature . But his literary bent was probably more of a liability than an asset. As Mayor of London he seemed scruffy and eccentric. As prime minister he seemed conceited, of another era.
In America, of the modern presidents only Jimmy Carter and—to be fair to the 44th president—Barrack Obama dabbled in poetry. John F. Kennedy had literary pretentions but only produced a repackaged undergraduate thesis (Why England Slept) and a ghostwritten book (Profiles in Courage) for which he undeservedly received a Pulitzer prize.
The literary statesman appears dead, a casualty of the professionalisation of politics and the managerial class which has come to dominate it. The archetypal pre-war politician was the lawyer. Independent. A skilled rhetorician. A whiff of the frustrated poet.
Today’s leaders are more calculating and scientifically minded. Financiers. Bureaucrats. Political operatives. Think Rishi Sunak the banker. Gavin Newsom the investor. Scott Morisson the bureaucrat in the tourism sector. Not to mention Donald Trump and Joe Biden, between whom it is doubtful a single work from the western canon has been read.
Politics is still about hearts and minds. But the ability to win them has become a science rather than an art. We have only ourselves to blame. Where the literary man was the true celebrity of the 19th century, in our own time we seek a touch of Hollywood in our politicians.
Our best leaders were once writers. Today they are actors.