A few days ago, people all over the world celebrated the 94 graceful and inspiring years Nelson Mandela has been on Earth.
Mandela is the rarest of leaders: A person whose influence and moral sway transcends the cause he is most associated with — in his case, the horrific apartheid in South Africa, under which he suffered and was imprisoned for a heart-breaking 27 years. However, since the abolition of that frightful regime and practice, and since the great man's release in 1990, Mandela has become just about every thinking person's idea of a true leader.
He is the ultimate example of a statesman — a man whose personal qualities (a quiet manner and temperance of utterance, a sense of equanimity and an always graceful bearing) make him a icon of integrity and honour far beyond the bounds of his own country.
What so much of the world actively hungers for in its public life, and so very rarely finds, is there in Nelson Mandela — leadership with moral force. Mandela is one of only two people who have been made “honorary citizens” of Canada, and the only foreign leader appointed an honorary Companion of the Order of Canada.
Are there any others in our day with such exceptional characteristics? Perhaps the long-time prisoner of Burma, liberated from house arrest only in 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi. She, though not as famous as Mandela, radiates something of his peculiar form of charisma. After her, I am not sure there are any to nominate.
There are no titan figures on the continent as there were during the middle of the last century, when a Polish worker Lech Walesa and the heroic pope, John Paul II, made their contribution to the decline of the evil empire. There was also Margaret Thatcher — with her steeliness, confidence and sheer grip — who merited admiration outside the country she led. And Ronald Reagan had elements in his personality that gave him a reach and persuasiveness beyond his role as president. Long ago we had a smatter of this larger leadership here in Canada when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister. He had inspirational powers.
Today, as the world spins nearer and nearer to possible conflict (the tensions of the Middle East increasingly ripen toward open conflict), where are the larger-than-life figures offering guidance? Where are the men and women who can claim the respect and attention of the great worldwide public?
They are nowhere. The UN — which in a sense contains all the world's leaders — is a swamp of mediocrities, hypocrites and tyrants. Obama, for the bright glistening hour of his campaign four years ago, has shed his numinous lustre. He is just a politican now, one with the best or the worst of them.
Everywhere from Greece to (in lesser degree) our own country, there is a sense of exhaustion to our politics, an air — not of despair so much as a cold, tired, resigned apathy. The political process, and the politicians who people it, has disappointed so often, in big things and small, from city to country, that the public more and more averts its attention when it can — wants more to “be left alone” than pestered by the hollow campaigns and always failing promises of those who so selfishly woo them.
A statesman of Mandela's depth and example, possessed of that moral centre, which gives Mandela his almost unique power, is nowhere on the scene when most one is needed. There is no fledgling Churchill for our time. It is ironic that as we drift even more toward turmoil, the world has so few that can measure up to its perils and challenges.
It will hurt some people to hear it but, in this context, our own guy, Stephen Harper, is one of the more capable (I do not say inspirational) figures on the world stage today. That — for good or ill — is a measure of them, as much as it is of him.
Rex Murphy, "Where have all the leaders gone?" National Post (July 21, 2012).
Reprinted with permission of the National Post.
Rex Murphy is host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup and contributes weekly TV essays on diverse topics to CBC TV's The National. (See Rex's TV commentaries). In addition, he writes book reviews, commentaries, and a weekly column for the National Post.
Rex Murphy was born near St. John's, Newfoundland, where he graduated from Memorial University. In l968, he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His primary interest is in language and English literature, but he also has a strong link with politics. His first book, Points of View, is described on Amazon: "With TV commentator and journalist Rex Murphy, it's easy to put a twist on the old parable: when he is good he is very very good, and when he's angry, he's awesome. Uncommonly dignified, relentlessly honest, unencumbered by de rigueur political correctness, and solidly grounded by his Newfoundland roots, Murphy is that rarest of TV types. He's an everyman who happens to be a Rhodes Scholar, and a personality treasured for his brain, not his looks...A cranky intellect, maybe, but an intellect just the same. It's Murphy's almost reluctant cynicism — delivered in language as sharp as shattered glass and aimed squarely at those in ivory towers — that makes Points of View a must-read."
Copyright © 2012 Rex Murphy
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