How They Shaped Our Era

Book cover
Private Lives/Public Consequencesby William H. Chafe

Harvard Univ. Press. 376p $29.95


The distinguished social historian William H. Chafe, author of significant studies of civil rights, the women’s movement and liberalism, considers in Private Lives/Public Consequences how the personal becomes political. Starting with the old-fashioned conviction that individual leaders make a difference in society, Chafe explores in eight brief biographical chapters the family, upbringing, marriage and relationships, and personal crises that may explain the making of modern American leaders.

Beginning with the partnership of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, he searches for patterns in the lives of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and William and Hillary Clinton. Examining the usual markers for leadershipnurturing parents, economic security, a moral compass, a good marriage, concern for others and intense ambitionChafe finds that only intense ambition was shared by all.

Franklin Roosevelt, King, and John and Robert Kennedy all dealt with a domineering parent; Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt experienced fathers who ranged from difficult to alcoholic to abusive; Johnson faced an ongoing tug of war for his soul and allegiance between his mother and father. Only Hillary Clinton seemed to have had a more normal childhood. Chafe tracks their coping strategies as children as evidence of their emerging leadership styles. F.D.R. brought the guile, charm and dissembling he successfully used to maneuver around his mother to Congress and the nation; L.B.J., torn between the conflicts of his parents, became dedicated to achieving consensus; Reagan, living with an alcoholic father, achieved the ability to be sensitive and perceptive to audience and environment. In some instances, states Chafe, the unhappy childhoods resulted in strained marriages and blatant sexual infidelity.

In key examples, Chafe shows how personal crises deepened and changed F.D.R., King, J.F.K., and R.F.K. Polio strengthened Roosevelt’s confidence in overcoming adversity. King responded to a threatening phone call in the night by making a covenant with Jesus and a commitment to stand up for justice. John F. Kennedy’s attitude toward war, forged by his PT 109 experience, influenced decisions during the Cuban missile crisis and led to the test ban treaty; Robert F. Kennedy, forever changed by the assassination of his brother, became able to communicate a new and deeper understanding of suffering and despair. In the case of Johnson, a walking paradox, and Richard Nixon, an example of genius and paranoia, Chafe concluded that the nation was close to having two mentally unbalanced leaders determining policies, including whether or not to launch nuclear weapons.

These individual stories begin and finish with analyses of two remarkable marriages: the partnership of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the co-presidency of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Chafe observes that their dialogue defined the leadership provided by the Rooseveltshis based on the steadfastness and inner strength he had found in confronting policy, hers based on the determination to serve humankind that had sustained her in the face of rejection by both her father and her husband. Bill Clinton, while constantly under challenge from a right wing opposition, brought on his own political downfall. His two parallel livesone secret, the other publicwere never integrated. Clinton succumbed to his need for an internal life where the secrets are hidden. Chafe concludes that the Clintons needed each other to win the White House, yet neither could achieve the objectives they shared because each did so much harm to the other. While Clinton had the capacity to become one of the best presidents of the 20th century, he failed, Chafe believes, mostly because of his moral failings and his inability to find a personal core.

These essays are the reflections of a mature historian, resting on a wealth of scholarship (although there are no footnotes to identify the many quotes that enrich his text). The importance of his subjects, in a sense, collides with the reach and format of the book. While a master of synthesis/analysis, Chafe, perforce, has to condense many of his conclusions here. His focus is consistently on persons, not policies and political accomplishments. He is not advancing new interpretations of individual lives. Rather, his contribution lies in his search for patterns and choices that produce leadership.

His challenge was trenchantly expressed in a recent New York Times review of a study of Lincoln’s melancholy: It’s obvious that the sum total of experience makes someone who he is. Precisely how that alchemy works is the mystery. Chafe seeks to plumb that mystery while probing an even deeper one: how these individuals, not predestined for leadership and success, provided the sustained quality of American political leadership over this period. While each biography contains evidence of frailty, failure, and conflict, he believes, on balance, they suggest reason for hope. They might also suggest reason for apprehension and appreciation of luck.

Chafe concludes with the worthy hope that recognizing how these leaders-to-be acknowledged and overcame adversity, and how that experience shaped their political lives may help us in assessing other political leaders, past and present. The words of Robert F. Kennedy on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, quoted by Chafe, offer a further coda: Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

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