I was working on a column about leadership - or the lack thereof - when I got the news that Joe Harsch had passed on. I was ruminating on the lack of giants in the world of diplomacy and statesmanship as the 20th century runs out. My theme was: Where are the colossuses who will lead the world to peace, order, and prosperity in the 21st century?
In the latter part of this century, Europe gave us titans like Churchill, de Gaulle, and Thatcher. Asia produced Nehru and Gandhi. The Middle East spawned Ben-Gurion and Sadat. From Africa emerged Nelson Mandela. The US gave us Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan. All of them demonstrated vision and the strength to implement it.
Who can we envisage succeeding them in stature in the coming century? The opportunistic Netanyahu? The unpredictable Yeltsin? The unknown Habibie (Indonesia) or the nuclear-wielding but even lesser-known Vajpayee (India)? No new political giant looms in Africa. Or Latin America. Britain's new prime minister, Tony Blair, is exhibiting flair and verve but not yet demonstrating substance or longevity. Nor can we draw much cheer or inspiration from the current state of US leadership - a presidency crippled by its moral sterility and the butt of late-night comedians and international sniggering.
It was in the midst of such gloomy ponderings that I learned Joe Harsch was no longer with us, and I rued not having talked with him about all this. For Joe - foreign correspondent, columnist, broadcaster, intimate of presidents and prime ministers - had met all the greats of the last half-century and in his 90s was still checking out the new guys still to come. He knew the people. He knew the issues. To his superb journalistic skills, he added a unique dimension - a sweeping sense of history (which he learned at Cambridge, where he also developed a bogus English drawl) that gave brilliant perspective to the events he chronicled.
A few years back I phoned Joe about something or other and we soon got on to Bill Clinton's foreign policy.
Joe sprinkled the conversation with historical references and comparisons. But he began not with FDR, or Jimmy Carter, but with Carthage, the ancient Phoenician city-state that came to a bad end in 146 BC.
When young students come to me asking what they should study to become top-flight journalists, especially foreign correspondents, I cite the kind of background Joe Harsch had developed. How can they comprehend the murderous relationships between Serbs and Croats and Bosnian Muslims unless they understand 1,000 years of history in the area? I tell them they must study economics - and watch their faces fall. But as Joe Harsch knew, you can't report from Tokyo, or Brussels, or Johannesburg, or almost any world capital today without an understanding of economics. The would-be foreign correspondent must study geography - it really helps to know where the countries are. And it doesn't hurt to know something about the religions and culture of the peoples to be reported on.
Joe Harsch understood all this and his insatiable curiosity about the world he lived in kept him asking questions, and traveling, and putting the knowledge he gathered into historical perspective until the end of his span on the globe that so fascinated him.
Another Harschian quality today's journalists should emulate was his professional versatility. He could report from the field like his contemporary, William Shirer. He could write a column as profound as Walter Lippmann's. (In fact he passed up a chance to co-author a column with Lippmann to become NBC's London bureau chief.) As a broadcaster, he could go toe-to-toe with colleagues Edward R. Murrow or David Brinkley.
When he finally became chief editorial writer of The Christian Science Monitor, he mastered the transition without a blip. He could do print, radio, television. And he could do it all a half-century before today's journalists learned the necessity of becoming multimedia masters in a changing media world.
I suspect Joe Harsch could himself have been a successful actor on the stage of politics, or diplomacy, or statesmanship. But he chose instead to be one of its best observers and chroniclers. We need as skillful successors to help us evaluate the 21st century's pretenders to greatness.
* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.