It is both cruel and instructive that the three pivotal and decisive foes of communism—Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II—had, in all likelihood, no memory of their world-transforming triumph when each stepped into the great beyond.
If you were a world leader who had confronted communist ambition and world-altering fear wrought by nuclear weaponry in the service of state-imposed servitude, what memory, aside from those most intimate, would you most wish to savor? If Reagan, Thatcher, or John Paul II could have asked their God to preserve but one slender slice of hippocampus, wouldn’t it have been to protect for all their natural life the many tales of their combined conquest of communism?
Wouldn’t they have delighted (if only privately, for they were each unfailingly modest) in the grit and courage required of them, and of peoples the world over, to bet blood and treasure for long-term freedom?
Wouldn’t they have delighted in the memory of the doubters and critics and cynics who considered their ambitions reckless, fruitless, and quite possibly dangerous?
Wouldn’t they have laughed heartily and compassionately at the messy freedoms and disruptive politics unleashed after the fall of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the sense that a half-century of history had been surmounted by three leaders who arrived at precisely the right time and with precisely the same aim?
Wouldn’t they have wished to preserve these memories above all other memories of politics?
Wouldn’t we grovel to hear those memories, share in those stories, comprehend that mighty arc of history and their perspective on leadership?
Sorry. It’s lost.
First to them. And immortally and forever to us.
Quite possibly it is our hunger, not theirs, I am channeling. What would we give for 10 years of oral histories from these three—from lengthy, detailed, and arch memoirs on their Cold War alliance. What would we give to have those memoirs instead of Richard Nixon’s RN or Bill Clinton’s My Life? In the case of Reagan and Thatcher, it would be far easier than Pope John Paul II. Still, what is impossible when it comes to memory leaves indelible pangs. Especially for those who survive.
Thatcher was the last of three great 1980s figures who arose in an odd—some might say providential—unison to confront the great soul-terror of the late 20th century. The Soviet peril was not merely about vast armies and intercontinental ballistic missiles. It was also about a global ambition to pulverize the individual and elevate the state. Ask the Poles. Ask the Lithuanians. Take a poll in Kiev and see if there’s nostalgia for the Soviet reign.
Ask people in Prague if they yearn for the days when a grotesque statue of Stalin glowered from Letna Park, a menacing, malignant specter of state supervision and authority. Go to Letna Park now and see the post-revolution replacement for the dictator—a vast, silent metronome that marks time and symbolically sings that time outlasts all tyrannies.
But not without some help.
Others have already chronicled the role Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II played in the last great revolution of the 20th century. That it was largely a peaceful revolution in the context of decades of nuclear menace makes it all the more breathtaking.
My point here is not that they won or that they advanced the cause of civilization in ways that few not of that time or place can comprehend.
My point is more subtle and painful: In the end, none of them could remember all they did or what they had achieved. As their lives wound down, their towering achievements neither warmed their souls nor burnished their consideration of the possibility of humankind. In the end, the world they transformed wasn’t even a whisper in their ears, merely a vacant corridor of indistinct shapes and broken light.
It is a lesson of leadership. The oldest lesson in life is, you can’t take wealth with you. But every soul hopes you can take memories of life, courage, risk, breakthrough, and triumph with you—even the ones rosy with the patina of nostalgia. Globally, 35 million people suffered from dementia in 2010, and projections suggest 65 million will be so diagnosed in 2020. The vast majority will not miss the memories of Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II.
For leaders now: Heed the instructive lesson laced through these three lives. Study, if you dare, the implications of their tragically dimmed memories and their heartbreaking walk down that vacant corridor toward death.
They took not wealth. They took not memory.
Yet they left a world transformed.
Lead not for wealth. Lead not for memory.
Lead as if years hence you can’t explain what you did or why, because you can’t remember.
Lead in a way that will not require it.
This article appears in the April 10, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Absence of Memory.