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A Historian's Take On President Obama

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

British historian and author Andrew Roberts' works have focused on leadership.

His much admired Salisbury: Victorian Titan is an engrossing portrait of the last of Queen Victoria's great Prime Ministers, a man who presided over the zenith of Great Britain's empire.

Roberts has also surveyed the sweep of last century, adding to Winston Churchill's epic study with his own The History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900.

Most recently Roberts has written a widely acclaimed joint biography of Churchill, FDR and their great commanders General George Marshall and Sir Alan Brook, titled Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West: 1941 to 1945.

Roberts has studied leadership of the great democracies over the past 150 years, and so I turned to him on Wednesday to assess what appears to be the confused and collapsing presidency of Barack Obama. Here is the transcript of that interview:

HH: I begin this hour in a conversation with Andrew Roberts, eminent historian, author most recently of Masters And Commanders: How Four Titans Won The War In The West. It’s a joint biography of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Marshall, and Alan Brooke. It’s a wonderful book. I will link it over at Hughhewitt.com, Masters And Commanders. Welcome back, Andrew Roberts, good to talk with you.

AR: It’s great to be on the show again, Hugh.

HH: I’ve got to ask you, as you watch President Obama in this season of sort of his undoing, and tonight people are asking if he’s lost touch, et cetera, what is the failure at the center of his presidency compared with the successes at the center of the FDR and Churchill leaderships?

AR: Well, I don’t think he naturally understands the American people. That’s the major problem, it seems to me, whereas FDR was completely plugged in to the heart and soul of the American people. And of course, Winston Churchill was the quintessential Briton. And so that, I think, is the problem that your president has at the moment.

HH: Now Andrew Roberts, they were, of course, part and parcel of a time when public opinion could not be accessed immediately. So isn’t it counterintuitive that they were more in touch with the people that they led than a president who has access to polls and the internet, and blogs and newspaper reporters 24/7?

AR: Well, I think this is the problem. The 24/7 news cycle does tend to dominate. Winston Churchill certainly didn’t, and FDR didn’t have this problem. In fact, Churchill said that any politician that constantly kept his ear to the ground, it was an ungainly position, that the British people wouldn’t respect a leader to be in that posture. And so unfortunately, today’s politicians, of course, are in that posture, because you do have this immediate way of rebutting, and then re-rebutting within moments.

HH: The headline at CNN.com this afternoon is, “Critics Say Obama’s Message Becoming Incoherent.” Did the message of FDR and Churchill ever become incoherent? Or did the fact that it was a hot war in front of them, and a global one, oblige them to be always on point?

AR: Not only that, but they were also immensely erudite men. You know, they were fantastic communicators. One imagined, at the time that Mr. Obama was standing for the presidency, that he, too, was going to be a great communicator. But it seems that that particular gift was something that he used whilst running for office, but not, and it doesn’t seem to have stayed with him afterwards.

HH: What do you make of the mosque controversy, Andrew Roberts?

AR: I’m afraid to say I think that it’s an example of appalling decadence that you, as a great nation, should have even considered that you would allow this to take place. It’s a decadent thing for you to have done.

HH: Can you explain that?

AR: Yes, at the end of empires, great empires, you very often find there’s a stage in which the collapse of the power of the empire is preceded by a time of decadence. You see it in Rome, of course you see it the time of the Ottoman empire. And I’m afraid that idea of putting up a mosque, only in the shadow of Ground Zero, is a, it seems to me, an act of that kind of decadence.

HH: I spoke with your fellow countryman, Peter Hitchens, and for an interview that will air on Friday about his book, Rage Against God, a lot of which is devoted to the decline of Britain after World War II. And he warns that this could happen to the United States in a flash. Do you think you see that?

AR: Well, that was certainly our period of decadence. And unfortunately, Peter is a very fine social historian as well as a political historian, and so yes, I’m afraid I do start to see that. I think the…of course, we haven’t got a, you haven’t got a Republican candidate yet, and there is a possibility, of course, if you pick the right person, that there’s a chance of saving yourselves.

HH: Let me ask you two additional comparisons, given that you’ve just finished a study in Masters And Commanders of Churchill and FDR, but also of George Marshall and Sir Alan Brooke. If you could compare Marshall and Alan Brooke to the two preeminent leaders of the American military today, who are Robert Gates, the secretary of defense, for whom there’s really no parallel here, and then David Petraeus, who actually is, for want of a formal title, the supreme commander of the Allied forces in CentCom’s region, even though Maddis is the official head of CentCom.

AR: Well actually, I know General Petraeus a bit, and he’s read this book, Masters And Commanders. And he very much identifies with George Marshall, and he’s right to do so, I think. George Marshall was the architect of American victory in the Second World War, and he’s admired unreservedly by General Petraeus, and rightly so. I think that the two men do have a lot in common.

HH: What do they have, what do they share in terms of traits?

AR: Well, clear-mindedness. And a sense of what they want, and how they’re going to go about it. And this is something that surprisingly, a lot of generals don’t have. But George Marshall, who created an army from absolutely nothing, yours was the seventeenth biggest army in the world in 1939. By 1945, of course, you had eight million men in uniform, which was an incredible achievement, at the same time as creating the grand strategy to win the war. And I think that General Petraeus, too, with his surge in Iraq, was one of the architects of victory there.

HH: Andrew Roberts, how did these great masters and commanders, the four men and their subordinates, deal with the media during the appeasement period, and right up through the dark days of the opening of the war for Churchill, because right now, we have a media that is almost in opposition to the American mainstream. It is truly and fundamentally disconnected from popular opinion. You’ll find the 70/30 opposed to the mosque is reversed within the Manhattan-Beltway media elite, perhaps even more. It’s probably 90/10 in favor of the mosque.

AR: Yes, oh absolutely. You didn’t have this problem in the 1930s and 1940s to anything like the same degree. There wasn’t the sense of superior disregard, really, for what ordinary people felt. If anything, people, newspaper owners, wanted to reflect the assumptions and the feelings, and the political views of their readers, rather than direct them, and let along ignore them in the way that some newspapers, especially here in New York, tend to do.

HH: Now there is a new article out at Commentary. It’s in the September issue by Arthur Herman, a pretty good historian himself.

AR: I’ve read the piece. Yes, he’s very good, and Commentary, of course, is an excellent magazine.

HH: It’s called The Re-Hollowing Of The Military. Do you share his concerns?

AR: I do. I do. I think it’s a nerve-racking phenomenon, and one that isn’t just taking place in the United States. It’s also taking place in other countries across NATO.

HH: Do you have confidence in Liam Fox and the new government in Great Britain?

AR: Oh, Liam himself, personally? Yes, I do. He’s a highly intelligent, articulate man who wants to keep our Trident nuclear deterrence, and is coming out against an awful lot of problems that really are the faults of the Labour Party who brought us to within an ace of bankruptcy a couple of months ago. So what we’re trying to do is to get the public finances back on track after the Labour government spent money like a drunken sailor on shore leave.

HH: Now it reminds people, the period we’re in now, of the 1978-78 period, and of course, Reagan led, with the assistance of Margaret Thatcher, John Paul II, and many other extraordinary people, a remarkable comeback for the West. Do you believe that’s possible?

AR: Well, you’ve got to have the leadership for it. And I’m afraid I don’t see that taking place at the present time in your country.

HH: Is it ideology or intelligence that blocks Obama from being at least a marginally competent president?

AR: Ideology, I would have thought. It’s, you know, he’s obviously an intelligent man. You know, he’s not dim. But he is blinkered, I think, by a lifetime of political assumptions that as I said right at the beginning, don’t seem to reflect those of the people he leads.

HH: But there’s also, as I look at the four people you profile in Masters And Commanders, and again, it’s linked at Hughhewitt.com, and we’ve got about a minute, Andrew Roberts, they were very experienced executives by the time that war approached them. Churchill had been in and out of government, FDR had been the president for so long, Alan Brooke and Marshall had been long time practitioners of leadership. President Obama arrived in office, you know, with two years in the United States Senate, and no management experience whatsoever. Should we have expected anything different?

AR: You probably shouldn’t have, but your system by which, in during the election process hyperbole takes over from reasoned analysis, I’m afraid makes it very likely that this kind of thing will happen again. You’re quite right. The way in which your experience, obviously, also great experience through the first World War, 25 years before the second, they, these men were honed in the struggle, as it were, in a way that President Obama simply hasn’t been.

HH: Andrew Roberts, thanks for joining us. The book is Masters And Commanders: How Four Titans Won The War In The West. It is linked at Hughhewitt.com. It’s in paperback, and boy, I wish someone would get a copy of it to the White House ASAP. Thank you, Andrew Roberts.

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