Heroes: What Great Statesmen Have to Teach Us

Paul Johnson
Author, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties

Paul JohnsonPaul Johnson is the author of several bestselling books, including the classicModern Times: The World from the Twenties to the NinetiesA History of the American PeopleA History of ChristianityIntellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and ChomskyA History of the JewsCreators: From Chaucer and Durer to Picasso and DisneyArt: A New HistoryGeorge Washington: The Founding Father, and most recently, Heroes: From Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Churchill and de Gaulle. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including National Review, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, the Daily Telegram, and the Daily Mail. In 2006, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The following is adapted from a lecture delivered on November 1, 2007, on board the Crystal Symphony, during a Hillsdale College cruise from Montreal to Miami.

I would like to end by stressing that my perception of heroic virtues is not inclusive. I merely stress the central and essential ones. One thing you learn from history is that a hero who can make the public laugh as well as admire is likely to have a strong and lasting hold on its affections. Here again Churchill stands high. He made us laugh even in the darkest days of 1940, when in reply to the Nazi jibe that “England in three weeks will have her neck wrung like a chicken,” he said, simply but forcefully: “Some chicken! Some neck!” As a teenager, when I had the chance to meet him in 1946, I was bold enough to ask: “Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?” He replied, instantly: “Conservation of effort: never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” There was a delicious irony with which this supreme man of action put the case for the sedentary, even the supine. Abraham Lincoln, too, loved irony. He often achieved an effect with jokes where mere oratory would not work so well. And Mr. Reagan communicated and ruled through his enormous collection of one-liners, which he suited to all occasions. And a joke can often enshrine truth, as for instance when I heard him say: “I’m not too worried about the deficit. It’s big enough to take care of itself.”

Margaret Thatcher was often criticized for having no sense of humor. Not true. I once heard her tell a joke to great effect. At the end of a long wearisome dinner with ten speeches, she—as Prime Minister—was scheduled to speak at the end. I could see she was furious. She began: “As the last of ten speakers, and the only woman, I have this to say. The cock may crow, but it’s the hen who lays the eggs.” I think I was the only one to laugh. The rest were shocked. I reminded Mrs. Thatcher of this recently, and she was delighted. She said: “My father told me that joke.” And that itself is a reminder that we learn from our parents at the fireside in our childhood perhaps as much or more than from anyone. But from the heroes of the past we learn, too, and what they teach, by the example of their lives and words, has the special quality of truth by personal example. Thus the good hero lives on, in our minds, if we are imaginative, and in our actions, if we are wise.