Power in high places, and the tragic failure of a lack of self-awareness


FDR memorial

U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s great words remembered at his memorial in Washington, D.C. As true and timely now as ever, perhaps even more so.

I’ve said it before, but it’s well worth repeating because of recent, bull-in-a-china-shop events in world affairs: self-awareness is a really important thing.

That’s especially true when you’re young. The time you take then to get to know yourself and the gifts you bring into the world, as well as the challenges you may have to face, could make all the difference in your life.

It’s never too late, to grow up, one might say. But the sooner the better. A lack of self-awarenss greatly increases the odds that you’ll make a mess of your life, and the lives of others too, for that matter – maybe lots of others.

It’s not an easy thing to do, to dive into the deep end of yourself: you may find pearls, but you may also find other things that aren’t at all easy to look at; like a wise young man I knew years ago said, “the hardest things for a man to accept are his limitations.”

I’ve often recalled that comment, including in connection with my own stop-and-start journey of self-awareness. I’ve only in recent years been able to be fully honest with myself about having an attention-deficit disorder.

Looking back to my boyhood I might still find that easy enough to deny if I was still so inclined. After all, I used to devour a certain kind of books: narrative, adventure classics like Robinson Crusoe, Two Years Before the Mast, The Last of the Mohicans. I picked up a book of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, Winner Take Nothing, and read it from cover to cover when I was 11 years old. It was one of my Dad’s books. As the years went by I read many more Hemingway short stories, which I much preferred to his novels. I read few novels when I was young. Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel was an exception. But it was more a torrent of poetic prose that caught me up in its current and carried me along.

As a teenager my bedside book was a wonderful anthology, Canadian Short Stories. My favourite was Morley Callaghan’s A Sick Call, a touching and sensitive story about an elderly priest’s visit to give the Last Rites to a dying young woman. It’s one of those stories that is so well told that it transcends words. Callaghan makes it an immediate experience.

I’ve come to realize that my preference for short stories, rather than novels, is symptomatic of my attention-deficit disorder.

I’ve always enjoyed history books that read like a narrative of people and events, rather than an academic treatise. My current read is One Christmas in Washington, by two Canadian authors, David Bercuson and Holger Herwig. It’s subtitled, “the secret meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill that changed the world,” and reads like a gripping narrative with lots of memorable anecdotes.

It’s actually about a series of meetings that mainly took place at the White House beginning just a barely three weeks after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbout on December 7, 1941.

Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, decided to waste no time in meeting with U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). At the height of the U-boat menace Churchill crossed the Atlantic on a British battleship in a storm so bad several much smaller destroyers couldn’t keep up and had to be left behind.

The often irascable Churchill essentially moved into, and virtually took over, the White House for several weeks. When the mattress on the bed in the first room he was offered wasn’t to his liking, he went from room to room until he found one that suited him better, much to Eleanor Roosevelt’s irritation. She was greatly relieved when Churchill took off for a few days on a side trip to Ottawa.

The meetings at the White House were often fractious. Several times the whole process almost fell apart. But the strong personalities of the two leaders, and several other key figures, especially U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshal and his then-aide, Dwight Eisenhower, kept the focus on the goal of negotiating a “grand alliance” to win the Second World War. The Canadian-born British peer, Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken), Churchill’s Minister of Production at the time, also played an important role in encouraging the Americans not to underestimate their capacity to produce tanks, aircraft, and ships. He was proven right.

The attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. entry into the Second World War, and its leadership role in the alliance also marked the end of a prevailing attitude of isolationism in the pre-war U.S. and the beginning of 70 years of American preeminence in world affairs.

Eisenhower went on to become Supreme Allied Commander in Western Europe before and after D-Day. In 1953 he was elected U.S. President and served two four-year terms.

One can hardly imagine what might have happened if those meetings between Roosevelt and Churchill had not happened, or if those two great men had not lived, and the U.S. had not dedicated itself totally to the defeat of the mass-murderous tyranny of Nazi Germany as well as Japan.

If one looks for one moment in history that makes America “great,” surely that’s it.

Any man or woman who seeks the office of President of the United States, must measure themself against the responsibility of being able to live up to, and stand on the shoulders, of that historic greatness.

And being able to do that of course requires a high level of self-awareness. Otherwise, the stage is set for a tragedy of epic proportions, affecting not just a fool in the White House, but the future of the whole world.


More words of wisdom at the FDR memorial.

A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in June, 2017.

2 thoughts on “Power in high places, and the tragic failure of a lack of self-awareness

  1. Interesting bit of history, thank you. I, too, prefer short stories and will check the library for Morley Callaghan’s A Sick Call. I agree with FDR, which is why I could do without comments such as “a fool in the White House”.


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