If there were a Pulitzer Prize for fatuous polls, I'd nominate Jack Anderson's recent Parade magazine survey, "The World's Worst Leaders," for it.
Anderson's staff, he tells us, consulted 50 "international specialists" in depth on this question: "Of all the rascals, despots and buffoons who have made themselves the leaders of nations, who are the world's worst?"
As you might expect, such lords of misrule as the Ayatollah Khomeini (1) and Muammar Qaddafi (2) led the list, and in fact most of the top 10 are undeniably awful.
But by what bizarre stretch of "expert" judgment is Ronald Reagan (12) "worse" than Pol Pot of Cambodia (13), the slaver or executioner of tens of thousands?
Mind you, Jack Anderson is only the collector of such strange evaluations. He would not, he tells us, have ranked the "amiable and decent" president of the United States dozenth among "rascals, despots and buffoons"; nor Israel's Menachem Begin fifth, well ahead of the late Leonid Brezhnev.
But if not, what value does Anderson attach to a rating system to which Parade devoted a splashy Jan. 9 cover, and for which it no doubt paid handsomely?
What credibility is enjoyed by "experts" (with, as Anderson puts it, "an eye for international disturbers of the peace") who consider Menachem Begin and Ronald Reagan more menacing than, say, Kim Il-sung, the North Korean dictator who started a war in which 50,000 Americans died? What, for that matter, makes even Indira Gandhi, who harbors thousands of refugees from the Bangladesh slaughters, "worse" than Le Duan of Vietnam, whose government traffics profitably in the Asian dispossessed?
Part of the answer, no doubt, is that "experts"-- Anderson says he found his in "the State Department, Pentagon, Central Intelligence Agency and Congress" and among "academics, journalists and foreign diplomats"--become so impassioned about parochial regional conflicts as to lose all perspective. That factor almost certainly explains the cuts at Begin and Gandhi, strong and personally unprepossessing leaders whose policies inspire a mighty wrath among Arabists and Pakistanophiles.
But what has Ronald Reagan done to rank with Caesars and tyrants? Even if you find his policies shallow or misguided, what examples of "despotism, personal greed or personal instability" did the experts have in mind? A tough line on the air traffic controllers strike? Mrs. Reagan's gift wardrobe? His taste for jellybeans?
Well, let me record my own suspicions. The first is that this skewed ranking reflects the tendency of experts enjoying the luxury of freedom to devalue the institutions of freedom and those who defend them vigorously. The second is that experts dislike conflict and tend to condemn those who generate it, whatever the merits.
It is, for instance, jolly fair-minded of Anderson's experts to rank the Argentine junta (10) as worse than Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (22). But what did Thatcher do, aside from a bold defense of civil principles of international order, to get within a hundred paces of Galtieri & Co.?
It is all, in any case, a vanity and a waste of time and space, and you must forgive me for bothering to get exercised about it.
If you want to know how well or poorly a nation is governed--not as to temporary policies but as to fundamental matters--forget the personalities and ask yourself a few basic questions:
Can the government be peacefully changed, at stated lawful intervals, by elections? Can the press and the opposition freely expose and criticize the government in power? How long may anyone be detained in jail without formal charges? Is the military under civilian control, or does it control the civilians? Are workers entitled to organize, strike and bargain collectively? What happens to peaceful assemblies in behalf of political change?
When you ask the questions that way, Khomeini and Qaddafi and "Baby Doc" Duvalier, and others, will usually head the list as they do here. But the seasonal leaders of free nations--the president of the United States, the prime ministers of such allied states as Britain, Israel and West Germany, and yes, even the pope--will not be there to make the rating system a mischievous joke.