Belmont Club

Obama, Kevin Rudd, and the Quality of Leadership

Within a few days of Kevin Rudd’s defeat as prime minister, the Australian Financial Review described how his victorious opponent, Tony Abbott, had employed a psychiatric report to exploit Rudd’s known mental instabilities:

The document was not shown to Abbott, but rather remained within the strategy group as an informal check-list, often as a tool for comparison after Rudd had already behaved in ways that the Liberal strategists believed could be leveraged to their advantage. The Liberal war room had reached its own conclusions about Rudd long ago, based on his public behaviour and the damning revelations of his colleagues.

Describing grandiose narcissism as less a psychiatric disease and more a destructive character defect, the document suggested Rudd was held together by one key strut: an absolute conviction of intellectual superiority over everyone else. “Kick out that strut and he will collapse”.

Rudd, the document went on, was vulnerable to any challenge to his self-belief that he was more widely read, smarter and more knowledgeable than anyone else “on the planet”. Such a condition of grandiose narcissism would make Rudd obsessively paranoid, excessively vindictive — “prepared to wait years to get revenge”.

Rumors that Rudd was a few sandwiches short of a picnic had been circulating for some time, supported in part by camera outtakes which showed him in an actual Jekyll and Hyde mode, as shown in this video here. Even before Rudd was defeated, television specials were openly questioning his mental stability.

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These defects are probably shocking to the ordinary public. Most of us will find it hard to accept that our countries might be led by persons very much worse than ourselves. It seems natural to think our social superiors are in fact superior — how else did those post turtles get there? But the facts suggest otherwise. It’s possible that our most exalted leaders are actually far less competent than we imagine, could we watch the outtakes of their lives.

The historical data is depressing. “Wild Bill” Donovan commissioned Professor Henry A. Murray of the Harvard Psychological Clinic, Dr. Ernst Kris of the New School for Social Research, and Dr. Bertram D. Lewin of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute to prepare a psychological profile of Adolf Hitler. The report rather unflatteringly concluded that Hitler was a pervert, psychopath, and a probable suicide. It’s too bad no similar evaluation was made of Joseph Stalin, but the odds are that old Uncle Joe would have given Hitler a run for his money in the monster sweepstakes.

And although it’s nice to think that the standard for world leaders picked up after the Second World War, the evidence hardly supports that view. Mao Tse Tung, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, the Assad dynasty — to mention only a few — proved none too savory. It was recently reported that Kim Jong-un, who is only in his twenties, ordered the execution of his ex-girlfriend for making a video, along with “other members of North Korea’s most famous pop groups.” Their immediate families were forced to watch:

The onlookers were then sent to prison camps, victims of the regime’s assumption of guilt by association, the reports stated.

“They were executed with machine guns while the key members of the Unhasu Orchestra, Wangjaesan Light Band and Moranbong Band as well as the families of the victims looked on,” said a Chinese source reported in the newspaper.

Kim is probably nuttier than a fruitcake. If he hasn’t blown up the world it’s for lack of means, rather than from restraint of character.

By these standards, old Kevin Rudd is pretty harmless. Bush-league in fact, mediocre in his faults. But Australian prime ministers aren’t really in the business of taking on the really bad guys of history. Kevin Rudd doesn’t have to match the cunning of the Putins, Saddams, and Assads of the world. If he can overawe the New South Wales union heavies, it is probably enough.

It’s different for American presidents. By definition they are always matched against the nastiest, meanest, and most cunning rogues on the planet. Against people with names like Hitler and Stalin.

This year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, will probably be an occasion to remember how JFK, so lionized in his lifetime, almost didn’t make the grade. Nathan Thrall and Jesse Wilkins wrote in the New York Times about how Kennedy’s incapacities took the world to the brink of nuclear war from the Vienna Summit onward:

Paul Nitze, the assistant secretary of defense, said the meeting was “just a disaster.” Khrushchev’s aide, after the first day, said the American president seemed “very inexperienced, even immature.” Khrushchev agreed, noting that the youthful Kennedy was “too intelligent and too weak.” The Soviet leader left Vienna elated — and with a very low opinion of the leader of the free world.

Kennedy’s assessment of his own performance was no less severe. Only a few minutes after parting with Khrushchev, Kennedy, a World War II veteran, told James Reston of the New York Times that the summit meeting had been the “roughest thing in my life.” Kennedy went on: “He just beat the hell out of me. I’ve got a terrible problem if he thinks I’m inexperienced and have no guts. Until we remove those ideas we won’t get anywhere with him.”

A little more than two months later, Khrushchev gave the go-ahead to begin erecting what would become the Berlin Wall. Kennedy had resigned himself to it, telling his aides in private that “a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” The following spring, Khrushchev made plans to “throw a hedgehog at Uncle Sam’s pants”: nuclear missiles in Cuba. And while there were many factors that led to the missile crisis, it is no exaggeration to say that the impression Khrushchev formed at Vienna — of Kennedy as ineffective — was among them.

As an individual, JFK was probably no match for Nikita. However, the far greater power of the United States offset Kennedy’s weakness. JFK could use the enormous Design Margin to compensate for his leadership deficits and overpower Khrushchev. Despite this, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a close-run thing. And yet looking back, things were not so bad. JFK was a bona fide World War II combat vet, leading a country with many times the combat power of the Soviet Union. How bad could it get?

Things are less certain now. The quality of American leadership is probably more important today now that the Design Margin has shrunk — much of it at the behest of the Left, which sees the Design Margin as bad. There is less room for error. How good is American leadership in the age of Obama?

The BBC’s Mark Mardell evaluates the president as he heads for his showdown with Congress.

This week, and the one that follows, could be the days that break a president.

His dazzling way with words, his skill as an orator, is beyond doubt. They will be deployed to the full, in the six big TV interviews he has planned, in the address to the nation on Tuesday night.

But recently his words have lost a little of their ability to glamour the listener. The magic has faded with repetition. In some, familiarity has bred contempt.

He ignored the groundwork for years. This a city where, far more than in British parliament, the political is personal.

Just about every senator, every representative has a keen sense of their own importance. Any one would find attention from the president flattering. To those who deal in power, it is currency.

Buttering up an ego today can grease a deal tomorrow. But Mr. Obama doesn’t like glad-handing, back-slapping and inquiring after sick spouses. He hasn’t built up the relations that would allow him to cajole and threaten.

Is that all he can say about the leader of the Free World? That he can give a good speech, but can’t glad-hand?

That sounds like a cipher. An incumbent “present.” What do his rivals around the world make of him? We can’t know, but we can infer it in the coming days.


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The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
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No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
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