A Rhodes Scholar Reaches the Top

IF Cecil Rhodes, the great 19th-century entrepreneur, buccaneer, and imperial dreamer were around today, he'd be grinning. He wanted one of the "boys" to become president of the United States and, finally, Bill Clinton has.

Although modern generations rightly question many of Mr. Rhodes's motives and methods, he was a man of unparalleled energy, power, and vision. When Rhodes died young in 1902, he controlled the world's diamonds and much of its gold.

He had been the English-speaking political leader of South Africa, where he had deprived Africans of their political rights. He had helped bring about a civil war between the Dutch and the English there. He had occupied both Southern Rhodesia and Northern Rhodesia (both named after him before they became Zimbabwe and Zambia). Botswana and Malawi had also been annexed because of him.

But Rhodes's overriding passion was the future of the "English race." He believed in a mystical coming together of English-speakers around the globe in order to save humankind. He made millions for himself and his investors, but he always claimed that he did so to advance the causes of the British empire and thus (in the logic of the later 19th century) global peace.

Mr. Clinton's accession to the American presidency fulfills Rhodes's deepest aspirations. That Clinton should be the one to do so is deeply ironic, since his life in public service has been devoted to racial justice, inclusion rather than division, and the promotion of harmony among peoples of diverse backgrounds. In the 19th centruy in South Africa, those were hardly Rhodes's primary objectives.

At Rhodes's death he left a complicated, idealistic will setting up what we now know as the Rhodes Scholarships. The purpose of the scholarship scheme was to forge meaningful links between English-speaking colonials (the inclusion of Americans was central to the plan) and the mother country.

At Oxford, where Rhodes himself had studied between 1873 and 1881, his "boys" would rub shoulders with Britons and learn the lore of empire.

Rhodes thought of the scholarships as a kind of religious experience. In the enthusiasm of perpetual boyhood, Rhodes believed that he had discovered an idea that could lead "to the cessation of all wars and one language throughout the world."

Rhodes also specified fairly clearly the kinds of men (and now women) who should receive the opportunity to go to Oxford. He had Clinton in mind.

He wanted smart men, but no bookworms. He wanted persons who exhibited qualities of "manhood, truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness, and fellowship." He wanted his scholars to have demonstrated a "moral force of character" and "instincts to lead." They were to "esteem the performance of public duties" as their highest aim.

RHODES wanted the best men for "the World's fight." He would have marveled at Clinton's remarkable stamina, tenacity of purpose, and clear-sighted vision during bitter primary battles and then throughout the final campaign itself.

Clinton demonstrated to Americans, as he had to Rhodes Scholarship selectors in Arkansas in 1968 that, indeed, he was a man for the world's fight, with many of the tough qualities specified in Rhodes's will, as well as the compassionate ones.

A host of other Rhodes scholars have served with distinction in the United States Senate and the House of Representatives.

Clinton is not the first Rhodes scholar from Arkansas to become politically prominent.

Other Rhodes scholars have governed their states and been influential in public life in this country, in Canada, and in all of the other countries which now send Rhodes scholars to Oxford.

But in the 90 years of scholarships, only Clinton has taken Rhodes's dreams to the top. In Clinton's personal history, too, he represents almost everything that Rhodes might have specified: poor beginnings, the struggle to make good, ambition, gifts of articulation and persuasion, an ability to adhere to a long-term plan, and a profound sense of national needs.

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