Heroes (By Paul Johnson)

Heroes Are People, Too

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Sunday, December 2, 2007

HEROES

From Alexander the Great And Julius Caesar To Churchill and De Gaulle

By Paul Johnson

HarperCollins. 299 pp. $25.95

"Once, when I was giving a history lesson to the late Princess Diana, wife of the Prince of Wales," writes Paul Johnson in a casual but startling sentence that very much typifies this book's tone -- a comfortable informality with both the reader and history itself. It is as if the man in the wing chair next to you in some university club library has leaned over and launched into a monologue on heroes from Moses to Maggie Thatcher that ranges from the insightful (the ancient Hebrews "made full use of the brains and courage of their women") to the trivial ("Hitler was a superb whistler").

Johnson seems to know everyone and have opinions on everything, which he vents with a confidence so great that he sees no need to muster arguments. The Earl of Winchelsea is simply a "booby," while Charles De Gaulle "embodied the natural selfishness which is the salient characteristic of France and of French people generally."

Another pleasure of this pleasurable book is that it does not have to be read linearly; one can skip forward or backward. Johnson notes that many heroes of the past, nearly all of whom were mass murderers, have lost their luster; Cortez, for example, is now viewed less as a dashing adventurer than as a cruel imperialist. Some of this, he says, is fashion and circumstance: Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, long reviled as barbaric slaughterers, are now making a comeback, idolized in post-communist Central Asian countries short of heroes.

Johnson's ideal hero is Sir Thomas More, who courageously paid with his life for a stand "based upon universal principles of absolute morality" and showed dignity, even elegance, in the face of death. "A hero needs to know how to die," says Johnson. Lowering his head to the chopping block, More moved his beard out of the way, "as it has done no treason."

Despite such passionate renderings, the overall effect of this volume is like walking down a picture gallery where all the portraits are the same size, similarly framed and seen from the same distance. In point of fact, some should be miniatures, while others should be epic canvases. Occasionally, this lack of perspective leads Johnson to conflate past and present. To speak, for example, of Moses' "heroic celebrity" is silly and tasteless. On the other hand, there may be something to Alexander the Great inventing the blitzkrieg.

Like the ancient Hebrews who were of two minds about women, Johnson can define femininity as "inconsequential, illogical, impetuous . . . changeable" and yet devote ample room to heroines, including Judith of the Hebrew scriptures, Queen Elizabeth the First, Emily Dickinson and Mae West. The last of these, he notes, was the world's highest paid female in 1935, when she earned $480,833.

From time to time, the author's politics intrude, and not at all subtly. They are meant to pique and provoke, as in: "Pinochet remains a hero to me because I know the facts." Other Johnsonisms betray the self-centered triumphalism of the West. "Three people won the Cold War, dismantled the Soviet empire and eliminated Communism as a malevolent world force: Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan." So, Mikhail Gorbachev, Andrei Sakharov and the nameless thousands who streamed into Moscow's streets in August 1991 could all have stayed home.

Many readers will find some favorite historical figure oddly omitted. Personally, I miss Christ and Trotsky. But, at its best, this book brings to life such leaders as George Washington and Admiral Nelson, who have become so iconic as to be without feature or flavor. Johnson says of Sir Walter Raleigh: "With all his faults, he is an overwhelmingly attractive figure. If he came into the room, now, we would recognize him instantly, and be delighted to see him."

It is Johnson's gift that he can make his subjects human and fallible enough that we would, indeed, recognize them instantly, while also illuminating what made them heroes. If the rich are different because they have money, heroes are different because they have courage.

-- Richard Lourie is the author of "Sakharov: A Biography" and the new novel "A Hatred For Tulips."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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