We often hear about people described as larger than life but do we really know what that means, especially while those people are still alive? True larger than life status is attained when someone’s life is compared with others of their generation and the remembrances of the larger than life personality towers over the memories of their contemporaries. George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, Martin Luther King are a few larger than life American personalities. There are more, of course, but I think we can agree that all of these men were “larger than life.” We don’t think of Dwight Eisenhower or Harry Truman, Bill Clinton or Barrack Obama as larger than life even though these men achieved significant notoriety in their lives. There are some near greats as well, that is people we remember for their deeds but perhaps not so much for their personalities; Clara Barton, Andrew Carnegie, George Washington Carver, Susan B. Anthony and others. So then, what makes the difference between larger than life and other people we regard with admiration for their work but who don’t make it into the pantheon with the likes of Washington?
Certainly accomplishments are a necessary element but there is an old military adage that It isn’t enough to do your job well, you have to look good doing it.” George Washington rode at the front of his troops, having horses shot from under him and bullets eat holes in his woolen coat. Teddy Roosevelt did likewise in Cuba and was loved by his troops for his actions. In the First World War Patton rode, fully exposed, into battle on the top of his tanks. MacArthur wore a soft garrison cap and carried a walking stick advancing at the front of his troops in WWI. No helmet for him: why? Because he said it was important for his men to be able to see him. Washington, Roosevelt and Patton were, of course, mounted and therefore more visible. If MacArthur wore a helmet, he said, he looked like everyone else. Lincoln fought his own party for control of the conduct of the Civil War; the first President to actually act as a Commander in Chief during war actually visiting generals in the field to discuss tactics..
These men achieved extraordinary things for the greater good, yet we should not forget there are larger than life individuals who achieved such status not necessarily having accomplished things for the greater good: Caligula, Attila, Genghis Khan, Rasputin, Lenin, Hitler and Stalin are good examples here. They too had notable achievements just not for the greater good and they, like our honored larger than life heroes, also had personalities that invited personal attacks on their character. And it is this attribute that seems to be the second common trait among those thought larger than life; they were all roundly despised by segments of the societies in which they flourished. For example, while beloved of the people other revolutionary generals spoke ill of Washington because of jealousy. Some members of the Continental Congress did not trust him and others were concerned that Virginians in general and Washington in particular were gaining too much power in the government. Some just didn’t like Washington because he was, to their minds, too popular at their expense.
Roosevelt was soundly thrashed daily by a variety of newspapers representing the interests of the Eastern elite and those businessmen who enjoyed monopolies. Like Washington, he was from the very class that detested him the most, because of his popularity with the American public, his personality and perhaps most of all his refusal to kowtow to convention or take directions from his political party or the Congress.
MacArthur and Patton were innovators who ran afoul of Army conventions in their attitudes towards war and the prosecution thereof. Neither of them suffered fools even if those fools were General Officers, politicians or the President of the United States. Patton was roundly disliked by many other US generals but mostly by the British General, Bernard Montgomery who displayed an attitude towards war not unlike that of Union General George Meade who, in Lincoln’s opinion, displayed a decided lack of initiative in pushing battle until he was assured he had an overwhelming majority in troops and equipment. Additionally, MacArthur and Patton were seen as patricians and self-promoters, a charge also leveled at Roosevelt.
King had entire segments of the country firmly aligned against him. But he soldiered on in his non-violent attempts to achieve integration of race and place. Like Lincoln, King was no self-promoter and like Lincoln he put himself “out there;” He led from the front. We have to ask ourselves if the two had not been assassinated would they still enjoy their places in the pantheon of larger than life American heroes. That is difficult to answer for both had much left to do when they died.
In my studies I suppose I have settled upon and propose to you the attribute that separates the great from the near-great and not so great is perseverance in the face of opposition. None of those heroes who were truly larger than life allowed distractors to deter them from what they would do or who they would be. Yes, it’s perseverance. And when you look back at the history of these larger than life personalities it does not take long to identify the plethora of enemies they made. Enemies of the rich and famous, enemies on the left and the right, enemies in the media. So, in some manner we may be able to judge greatness not just by the achievements of an individual but the enemies they make while achieving great things. But, in thinking this through one must always consider that gathering enemies without achieving significant success is only the measure of a failure. I say this because a recent failure in the national arena has used the Franklin Roosevelt quote, “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made,” in defense of a rather undistinguished and disreputable career. In Roosevelt’s case it was an appropriate request; in the case of this other person merely an excuse. You’ll know who I mean.
So, then larger than life is determined by great deeds for the good of your people, a personality that invites jealousy, and perseverance in the face of concerted opposition from many sides. In our current Cancel Culture and Me Too environments can we still have leaders who are truly larger than life?
What do you think?