Two were golden boys - brilliant, rich and handsome. Two moved rapidly from obscurity to the top by sheer brains and drive. The three others emerged victorious from years of strenuous political in-fighting.
Still the seven heads of government meeting in Bonn for the economic summit are not chiefly interesting as a group portrait in modern leadership. On the contrary, they show, much more strikingly, how much the general spirit of an age can dim even the brightest stars.
Jimmy Carter presents the most obvious case in point. Nothing very bad has happened during his presidency. But his stock has dropped steadily here and abroad.
Why? Chiefly because of a national mood that accentuates personal satisfaction and disparages public action. Carter invoked that mood in winning office by an assault on Washington insiders. Now he finds no response to his strident calls for action against inflation or the energy crisis or an unfair tax system. So he looks weak and indecisive, and in Bonn has been on the defensive.
Helmut Schmidt, the host at Bonn and the other leader who moved ahead rapidly on his own, has enjoyed far more success and public favor. The Social Democratic chancellor has stopped inflation cold, kept unemployment relatively low, and made his country an object of elaborate courtship from the United States, Russia and the rest of the world.
But the essence of his dosmestic policy has been mean-spirited resistance to proposals for social reform and economic justice. The opposition Christian Democrats now threaten to one-up him with a proposed tax cut. That exerts a powerful appeal on his coalition partners, the Free Democrats. If local elections go badly next fall, the coalition could fall apart, thus paralyzing the chancellor and compromising his chances for winning the 1980 elections.
The two golden boys have also suffered from a lack of public spirit. President Valery Giscard of Estaing won a great electoral victory when a left-wing coalition of Socialists and Communists lost the French legislative elections in March. But in the interest of fighting inflation - and staying on good terms with the Germans - he has had to jettison hopes of reforming France's truly outmoded social structure.
In Canada, Pierre Eliot Trudeau failed - because of resistance from business and labor - to master inflation by an ambitious program limiting wage and price rises. To win reelection, he now has had to abandon that project and, also, his proposals for drawing Quebec into the Canadian federation by spreading bilingualism in English and French throughout the country.
As to the three survivors, British Prime Minister James Callaghan is heading for an election this October with relatively good chances for success. But that is largely because of fear that the Tories under Margaret Thatcher could not hold the wage line against the unions without tearing the fabric of Britain's social peace.
Japan's prime minister, Takeo Fukuda, can get by the annual meeting of his Liberal Democratic Party this December only by first convoking the Diet in special session, then dissolving it, and then winning a smashing triump in new elections. To win the elections he would have to yield to public clamor for economic stimulus through more deficit financing. Even then he could probably only save himself for a year against the challenge of rivals supported by other factions in his own party.
In Italy, Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti would like to free his Christian Democratic government from dependence on Communist support. But the election of a Communist-backed Socialist, Sandro Pertini, as president of Italy shows how hard it is for the Christian Democrats to shake the deadly embrace. Why? Primarily because the Christian Democrats refuse the self-purge that would enable them to stand up as a clean, modern party with mass appeal to majority of Italian voters.
So despite considerable personal qualities, no leader of the advanced countries can look forward to a glorious future. Conditions beyond their control - namely, the absence of crisis and of a self-evident need for sacrifice - do not afford the scope for greatness.