Changing of the guard

When power changes hands in a democracy, all eyes are upon those who come into office. What new things will they bring about? What policies will they introduce? For a season, conversation runs with animation over every tidbit of news; gossip has a field day in capital and hamlet. For myself, I can't help thinking, somewhat perversely, not about the newcomers, but of those who slip from the field of action and are suddenly returned to private life.

The loss of power is one of the most painful experiences that can afflict a person. No matter how well prepared for it he may consider himself, he will undergo something like physical shock on finding he is deprived of the outward shows and trappings of office and -- more deeply -- of the capacity to shape events. I have known men to break under the strain. Those who suffer most are the ones that have had the healthiest zeal to move the world, who have gloried in the brief opportunity to put themselves wholly at the service of their fellowmen.

My old friend and chief, Adolf A. Berle, held many posts in public life. He always conceived his responsibilities in the broadest way, and he did not conceal the sense of diminished force when some change of fortune sent him back to his teaching and the practice of law. However satisfying or lucrative these pursuits might be, they lacked the liberating ardor of public service. Writing his culminating study on "Power" he included a perceptive, moving passage on what it means to have power taken away, being perhaps alone among political philosophers to have considered this aspect of the subject.When I found a period of relatively minor authority on the political stage coming to an end, he showed me particular kindness, taking steps, in the practical way he had, to see that I should not be at loose ends.

To leave high office is almost inevitably to sense the sobering question of whether one's work will be considered to have succeeded or failed. The pundits of the day are not apt to be helpful. They are at the beck and call of the new men and women in the spotlight; they barely pause to say a decent farewell to the outgoing team. As for ordinary citizens, whose judgment the leader is tempted to rely on, they are too often like those of whom Plutarch reported that they were "tired of hearing Aristides called the just."

So the old warrior, nursing his wounds, turns to history for vindication. It has been a comfort for him in the midst of his battles to think that one day, when the newspapers and the television screens have been silenced by time, quiet scholars sifting all the facts will have the final say. But Clio, like other gods and goddesses, has been toppled from her throne. The oncoming generation doesn't believe in history, isn't taught it, and is bored by its essential facts. The writers of history now class themselves among the social sciences, being more interested in computerizing trends than in making judgments about anything.

When judgments are ventured, they tend to emphasize the novel and the paradoxical at the expense of an impartial truth. No reputation is secure anymore; no fame is beyond being tarnished. In every field the "revisionists" have been at work, overturning accepted judgments and reversing what they term the conventional wisdom. When this generation of revisionists has had its say, no doubt the revisionists will come upon the scene, winning brief attention (and best- seller status for their books) by declaring precisely the opposite of what everyone had presumed to be the facts of the case.

Even at their best, such chroniclers are an uncertain court of appeals. "History with its flickering lamp," said a man who had written history as well as made it, "stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passions of former days. What is the worth of all this?"m The voice is easily recognized as Churchill's. He was reflecting in this famous passage upon the judgment which would finally be rendered on Neville Chamberlain, the man he had defeated for his country's highest post. What was important for Chamberlain -- as it would be one dark day of defeat for Churchill himself -- were qualities within a man's own soul: "The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and the sincerity of his actions. . . ."

For those who gain power, as well as for those who lose it, that shield is a good one to carry. Hopes may be mocked, calculations may be upset, but with such a shield, Churc hill concluded, "we move always in the ranks of honor."

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