How often do pundits and the press bewail the lack of towering leaders in today's world. After Churchill, Roosevelt, and de Gaulle, many find the roster blank - excepting possibly Anwar Sadat and Deng Xiaoping, helmsmen who boldly reversed the course of history.
And yet there, all the while, was Jordan's King Hussein. He personified personal courage and leadership. For near half a century he managed to keep his tiny rowboat of a state afloat amid the turbulent riptides of geopolitics, religions, personal ambitions, and intrigues that surround the world's chief oil spigot in an age so shaped by oil.
No one who heard his early speeches at the UN could doubt that this self-possessed, deep voiced truth teller, not long past his teenage years, had the stuff of leadership. He stood out among heads of more powerful states uttering diplo-speak. He was politically creative (and sometimes wrong for understandable reasons) on the world stage. And he practiced tolerance interspersed with stern resolve to shape what is in many ways the most workable, livable state (with the least resources) in the Middle East. The velvet glove of civility and personal warmth covered his iron fist except when the very survival of Jordan, its people, and his rule was at stake.
It is a promising sign that so many of the world's leaders felt impelled to gather in Amman for his funeral: four of the five living American presidents. Boris Yeltsin, galvanized from his sickbed. Europe's sometimes too timid major leaders. Israel's President Weizman, who, like Hussein, often tried to nudge rudder-flopping Prime Minister Netanyahu back onto the land-for-peace course set by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Perez.
Many of the world leaders who flocked to Amman govern states with affluent economies and well-tested institutions of democracy. And yet, with all those advantages, they steer by daily poll results instead of vision. No lulling with Roman bread and circuses, but instead rule by a kind of political biofeedback that reflects poll results back to citizens as percentage-verified proof of a national consensus. That process sends shrinking ranks of voters to the official polls to elect leaders whose legitimacy then comes from the unofficial poll numbers.
Hussein's nation building partook instead of the methods of earlier leaders: General Joseph Stilwell slogging alongside his troops when the going was tough. Egypt's Sadat, risking everything to fly to Jerusalem and break the mesmerism of Arab-Israeli hostility. (Remember Hussein's deeply moving speech about peace among neighbors at Rabin's funeral.)
Hussein knew how to inspire Jordanians' hopes when hopelessness hovered - water skiing carefree off Aqaba, piloting his own jet, battling, then embracing the two-thirds of Jordanians who were Palestinians.
Charles de Gaulle was once described as having long vision but stumbling over the political furniture. So, too, Hussein. But the king picked himself up and went on with nation building and bold forays for peace.
World leaders, clearly moved, can honor his memory. To do so, they must jointly push Israel's next government and all its neighbors to get on with the agreed blueprint for giving Palestinians a prospering state and Israelis safety. Now - not someday.