Guest column

Note: A fund-raiser for the construction of the Martin Luther King Memorial on the mall in Washington, D.C., will be held tonight at the Beverly Hilton.

THE 2008 PRESIDENTIAL race is beginning to ignite a small flame, soon to become roaring fires.

In Hollywood and Washington we use language wantonly, seldom really informing anyone what the words mean. What voters will begin to hear over and again is that venerable word “leadership.” If you listen closely enough, you will discover that no one defines “leadership.” Can it be summed up in a sentence, a paragraph or a phrase? Indeed it can.

Many years ago, in Deauville in the Normandy country of France, the beautiful mayor of Deauville, Anne d’Ornano, suggested to me that I ought to visit a cemetery a few kilometers west of Caen and some 30 kilometers east of Deauville.

She said, “There is a gravesite there you must see.” I was instantly curious. “A gravesite? Why is it so special?”

She smiled. “You are a political animal. When you read what is on the gravestone, you will know.”

So I paid a visit to the Banneville-Campagne military cemetery. Lovely, silent, its well-kept grounds were respectful of its 1,000 or so eternal residents: Canadian, British, Australian soldiers killed in the great invasion.

I found the grave. It was like all the others, a rectangular gray stone beveled in a half-circle at the top and fitted into a small bed of earth and flowers. It read “Major Sir Arthur Lindsey Grant. Grenadier Guards. Age 32. Killed July 14, 1944″ — the bland, brief finalities of a brave soldier’s life.

But it was the bottom of the grave marker that captured my interest. I knelt down to read what was written there. In letters etched into the stone were these 11 words: “Leadership is wisdom and courage and a great carelessness of self.”

I sat on my haunches for a minute or so before I rose to my feet. I confess I pondered those words even as I was moved by them. What they meant to me was that from time to time the leader must put to hazard his or her political future in order to do what is right in the long-term interests of the people he has by solemn oath sworn to serve. Over the years I have come to believe that leadership is truly defined by what was imprinted on Major Grant’s grave marker. It’s mighty easy to say. But oh so very hard to do.

I THINK THE NATION bore personal witness to two moments wherein Major Grant’s definition took root in real terms. One was President Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan to forestall an invasion that could have cost, by military estimate, some 300,000 young American lives. I have grown amused at the prattle of dissenters who flail Truman for this dastardly decision. I daresay none of those dissenters were in uniform at the time or had family members in the armed services. War is a messy, brutal, callous, inhumane business. The tragedy is that the large majority of those who are killed serving their country are the young.

Would it have been better for Truman NOT to drop the bomb and consign several hundred thousand American youngsters to death? As one of those young combat warriors at the time, I bless President Truman for his “great carelessness of self.”

The second moment was when President Johnson determined to press on to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He understood with awful clarity — as he said to me and others on his staff — that it could cost the Democratic Party the South in elections to come. Most of LBJ’s staff, like me, were from the South. We understood the risk. When a powerful Southern senator bluntly told LBJ that if he persisted, he would not only lose the election but it would lose the Democratic Party the South forever, Johnson’s answer was swift and clear. He said, “If that’s the price I have to pay, I will gladly pay it.”

THE SENATOR was half-right. Johnson won the election in 1964, but he was the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry a majority of white male voters in the South. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black leaders understood the consequences of LBJ’s decision. Johnson changed America by protecting the right of everyone to vote. But it also changed the electoral map color in the South.

There are no schools to teach presidential leadership. It’s not easy to try to look inside a candidate to search for the molecular connections that ignite leadership skills. But the common sense of the average American has a way of picking up the spoor of the ones who have it and the ones who don’t. At least, most of us want to believe that.

Soon potential candidates in both parties will begin their canvassing of the country to seek voter approval. Perhaps Major Grant’s concise definition of an elusive but indispensable force will run through the campaign with the power of raging rapids. There’ll come a time when the dagger is at the nation’s belly and then voters will know for good or ill if their leader is indeed provisioned with the quality defined on that gravesite marker.

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