This time, the great leaders were missing at Normandy

June 10, 1994|By Robert E. Thompson

NOW that the long, poignant remembrance of D-Day is over, one great question remains: Where have the leaders gone?

As we relived the carnage of war and the majesty of human valor, as we watched scenes of chaos on the scarlet sands of Omaha Beach converge into a victory parade through Paris and the march of triumphant Allied troops into Berlin, the images and words of giants promenaded across our front pages and television screens.

Their names were Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall, Eisenhower, de Gaulle, Montgomery and Bradley.

In the crucible of war they appeared great. Against the 50-year backdrop of history, they remain great. They made mistakes and sometimes quarreled among themselves, but they left a massive imprint on the 20th century and the world's quest for freedom.

Their remarkable performances in a time of terror force us to ask ourselves whether Bill Clinton, John Major and Francois Mitterrand are in the same league with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle? Are we served today by outstanding professional warriors like George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bernard Montgomery and Omar Bradley?

A corollary question is: Do events make great leaders or do they become great through their mastery of events?

The answer is especially pertinent to Mr. Clinton because many Americans and many foreign leaders feel that the 42nd president, despite his charm, intelligence and vision of America's destiny, is not up to the tasks that confront him.

He is perceived as a man who is given more to vacillation and compromise than to bold action. His temporizing on such foreign policy matters as Bosnia, Haiti and North Korea is believed to have undercut America's prestige and authority abroad.

In Bob Woodward's new book, "The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House," the president is portrayed as a man who is immersed in details, who cannot delegate authority and who has great difficulty making up his mind.

Mr. Clinton, it would seem, listens to too many voices and is forever seeking common ground on which he and his foes can reach some accommodation. In domestic policy, such action is designed to win approval for his agenda for change; in foreign policy it is aimed at settling disputes peacefully.

One of President Clinton's biggest troubles is his inclination to issue ultimatums that are ignored with impunity by their targets.

At Normandy, he demonstrated extraordinary skills as a communicator and established a warm rapport with veterans who, as he said, "saved the world." Most important, he saw the graves of those who gave their lives to defeat Adolf Hitler's empire of tyranny.

To the survivors of Normandy, he pledged: "We will be the new pathfinders; for we are the children of your sacrifice."

Perhaps the experience will strengthen his resolve in dealing with the crucial matters, such as the potentially perilous nuclear cat-and-mouse game being played by North Korea.

Were Allied forces able to secure a foothold on Normandy's bloody beaches because of divine providence, courageous allied leadership or human folly on the part of the German high command? We will never know whether success was due to one or all of those elements.

What we do know is that the fighting forces of Normandy were led into battle by civilian and military leaders who were bold, brave and visionary.

I hope we will never have to learn whether Bill Clinton could lead America through a great war with the self-confidence and determination exhibited by Roosevelt because we should never again be involved in such a war.

But the North Korean situation could prove the crucial testing ground for him. It could determine whether he has the leadership required by the events of today.

How long does it take for a president to establish his credentials and to be regarded as a strong leader? It depends, of course, on the person, the events and the resolution of crises.

A few years ago Richard N. Goodwin, who served as an aide to both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson wrote a book entitled "Remembering America." Recalling that Kennedy's presidency had run a brief two years and 10 months, Mr. Goodwin concluded: "Had their terms been similarly truncated, Franklin Roosevelt would be remembered as an inspiring failure, Woodrow Wilson as an accidental interlude in decades of Republican rule and American isolationism, Abraham Lincoln as the man who allowed a peaceful separation to become a bloody dismemberment of the union."

Mr. Clinton has now served 18 months, and perhaps the experience at Normandy will provide him with a deeper understanding of leadership and sacrifice. Perhaps in the long run, Normandy will save his presidency as it once saved the world.

Robert E. Thompson wrote this for Hearst News Service.

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