Poets and politics

IT is a particularly Gallic decision to admit the former President of Senegal to the prestigious French Academy. Leopold S. Senghor is a poet as well as statesman, and the French have a special appreciation for the place of arts and culture in society.

Political leaders who would be artists confront a challenge not to be weighed down by what may seem an endless procession of domestic and world problems. And, instead, to soar above them and create artistically meritorious works.

As Senghor sought successfully to lead his people to gradual independence through democratic means, with one hand he fended off those who demanded immediate independence. With the other he wrote poetry about racial consciousness: He is the first black to be elected to the Academy.

It is appropriate that Edgar Faure is now the president of the 40-member Academy, founded in 1635 to preserve French literature and language. Faure was France's prime minister during part of the 1950s when Senghor was leading his land, then a French colony, to peacefully gained independence.

Many diplomats the world over are also de facto men of letters: Much of their work entails writing reports to be sent to their government, thus combining the skills of observer and writer.

Occasionally a government official rises to renown as a man of the arts, like Winston Churchill - author of stirring speeches and comprehensive histories as well as twice prime minister of Great Britain.

Or, in a different way, Abraham Lincoln, a man with little formal education, yet who wrote with a spare splendor.

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