A few days ago Radhika Coomaraswamy wrote that many of us existed in a state of suspended disbelief thanks to chicanery in the political sphere.Well, we have now descended to being firmly impaled on the spiky realities of life and what was formerly a disbelieving situation has now become horrifyingly real.
Being a student of history (But a totally non-political person) I have taken to recalling uplifting incidents and the courteously statesmanlike behaviour of many men in the past. Yes, even in our own country if we look hard enough.
- Politics can be gentlemanly if we try
- We have now descended to being firmly impaled on the spiky realities of life
- Leaders of those times did not seem to hold too many grudges. Or even if they did, the grudges remained private
One of my favourite presidential figures was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the USA for an unprecedented three terms who died just before World War 11 ended. He was actually contemplating an unheard of fourth Presidential term (such was his popularity). The only son of a rich and aristocratic Hudson Bay family of Dutch descent, he brought a charm and folksy attitude to his office. He was hated by the rich (his own kind) but loved by the majority for the “New Deal’ he offered them. He became specially known for his famous ‘Fireside Chats’ which brought him and the affairs of the nation closer to the people. A lesson to be learned here perhaps!
I particularly like this story of the start of his regime. Apparently, he wanted to replace Averill Harriman in some public office although Harriman was also enormously wealthy and was a well-known Diplomat, Entrepreneur and public servant. Averill Harriman politely resigned when requested to do so and even attended the swearing in Ceremony of his successor.
Appreciative of this gesture and pleased with the smooth transition of power in his Cabinet, Roosevelt said of Harriman, “That is how a gentleman resigns.” Another lesson to be learned from the past.
Statesmen can come from all walks of life. It is not an attribute of wealth or birth. Roosevelt came from a mansion; Lincoln from a log cabin yet both had that indefinable quality of greatness
Who can write about gentlemen in politics without first thinking of Nelson Mandela - the absolute political icon of our times. Imprisoned by the appalling Apartheid Regime he was held a prisoner for Twenty seven endless years in Robben Island, Pollismoor and Rivonia Prisons. It never embittered him.
We all know that when he came out of jail and could have taken revenge, he did no such thing. He behaved with a magnanimity that was almost unbelievable, forgiving his persecutors and teaching all politicians, what it meant to be a STATESMAN and not just an elected official.
And what of his actions while still a prisoner? Apparently, he soon became so loved by his guards ( who were all white) that they even looked the other way when his wife smuggled in their baby grandson to see him. He encouraged the young men guarding him to complete their studies and not remain, guards, all their lives. One man, in particular, Philip du Prez, said that Mandela harassed him so much about studying he eventually gave in and Matriculated. Mandela was a father figure to us all said Christo Brand. He became the Father of a nation which was founded on the behaviour of a generous and politically non-revengeful man.
Perhaps Abraham Lincoln best epitomises the generous mind and heart of any President and yet he was a poor boy who educated himself with difficulty and had many failed careers. He was not a President to whom money was important and he never used his office as President to make it. After the Civil War ended he was acutely aware that many army deserters of both sides did so because of the appalling conditions under which they had to fight. He did the best he could to save young men from being court-martialled and given the death sentence whether they came from armies of the North or the Confederate Army of the South.
Churchill was Prime Minister of Britain when Roosevelt was President of the USA and the two were friends, albeit a trifle guardedly. Apparently, after a meeting each leader would ask his aides, “What does he think of me?” Both Leaders were of aristocratic birth and both had a plethora of witty come-backs in conversation.
Our leaders of that time could not have visualised or even believed that the violence, the levels of treachery and the corruption of today would become the norm
One of my favourite stories concerns a time when Churchill was a guest at the White House. Churchill liked padding around his room without the restriction of clothes whenever he could and shed his clothes in private at the drop of a hat. He saw no reason not to do so in the privacy of his room at the White House.
One afternoon Roosevelt suddenly remembered he had forgotten to remind Churchill of an important point and he barged into Churchill’s room without knocking to find the British PM totally nude. Completely unfazed Churchill looked up and beamed.
“Come in Come in,” he boomed. “As you can see Mr President, Britain has nothing to hide.” An embarrassing moment was averted. Statesmen can come from all walks of life. It is not an attribute of wealth or birth. Roosevelt came from a mansion; Lincoln from a log cabin yet both had that indefinable quality of greatness. Are we looking for it vainly in Sri Lanka as we watch our national institutions disintegrating before our eyes?
Our own politicians of the past did engage in these gentlemanly exchanges I am sure but I know of none. I know of one story. SWRD’s generosity to a beaten candidate is worth the telling. After his resounding political victory, he allowed Sir John Kotelawela, the badly defeated PM, to take his money out of the country, to the UK legally so that he could live there as comfortably as he had done in Sri Lanka.
Leaders of those times did not seem to hold too many grudges. Or even if they did, the grudges remained private. Our leaders of that time could not have visualised or even believed that the violence, the levels of treachery and the corruption of today would become the norm.
Who can write about gentlemen in politics without first thinking of Nelson Mandela - the absolute political icon of our times. Imprisoned by the appalling Apartheid Regime he was held a prisoner for Twenty seven endless years in Robben Island
As do many of us I frequently read for comfort and one of Roosevelt’s writings I find particularly apt right now..
“To reach a port one must sail.
SAIL, not lie at anchor
SAIL, not drift.”
I leave the reader to decide what is happening in Sri Lanka at the moment.