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Homage to the Future

Debts of Honor By Michael Foot Harper and Row; 240pp.; $13.95

By Paul A. Engelmayer

JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU was not enamored of his contemporaries: They were motivated by selfish desires, he said, and a little too frivolous in their interest. But Rousseau was a political philosopher, and that me is he had to have some ideas for the future, preferably optimistic ones. After all, the state of nature may be be romantic, but it doesn't have much in the way of creature comforts. So Rousseau came up with an idea, a scenario to bring culture to the heathens, and men would learn to live for each other. It went something like this.

After men had quibbled, nit picked, and clashed for some time, a great legislator would come along. He couldn't exactly force people to live properly; that would contradict Rousseau's belief that a populace must retain sovereignty, misguided though it might be. Instead, Rousseau's Supermen would skillfully persuade men to listen to that part of their consciousnesses that instructs them to act as public-minded citizens and to ignore their self-serving desires. Thanks to this great legislator-educator, society would advance spiritually, cooperation would become the norm, and everyone would be fulfilled.

The problem is, as Rousseau might have known, men of that caliber don't come along any too often, when they do, they rarely make the compromises necessary to reach adequately influential positions. Visionaries able to persuade without compelling, and convincing enough to sway millions to jettison their selfish tendencies are a vanishing breed (and never a big species in the first place).

Exhibit A: Twentieth century American politics. Astonishingly few American leaders, and almost no presidents, have been immersed in the nation's cultural and intellectual life. In fact, it probably would be too much to ask many of them to hold forth on the Jefferson-Hamilton debates, the 14th Amendment, Marbury v. Madison, or any of the historical events that defined America's ideological bent. Ronald Reagan may be our most obviously unintellectual leader, but he is not alone; you'd probably have to go back to Adlai Stevenson to find a national politician well-versed in national culture and literature and able to articulate a coherent philosophy without pandering. And Stevenson's tendency to sermonize and orate over people's heads probably disqualifies him, too, as even approaching Rousseau's ideal of a foresighted and persuasive leader.

ALL OF WHICH is too bad, because in Britain, the literary tradition of politics lives on. Politicians there, for the most part, are less afraid of high-minded language and ideas than are America's. The walls of Parliament resound with far more allusions to history, literature, or poetry than do Congress'. Margaret Thatcher's Spartan approach to national economics may have failed dismally, but at least she can intelligently argue her points and explain her intent. Ask America's leader to account for Reaganomics, and you'll get the usual drivel about free trade, unleashed American industry, and the sanctity of the unencumbered market.

Perhaps no man personifies what Harrison Salisbury calls "the integration of English life and its whole national being within politics" than Michael Foot. Now head of Britain's Labour Party, and a man whose wealth of experience--newspaper editor, literary scholar, political columnist, book critic, and the most respected orator in Britain--he should make the United States thoroughly embarrassed at the previous occupations of her last three presidents: acting, peanut farming, and modeling (yes, Gerald Ford was a fashion model back in the 1930s).

Foot's newest book, his eleventh, reflects that very amplitude of intellectual riches and experience. Debts of Honour is Foot's ode to his political and literary heroes, in 14 fond chapter-biographies. Those idols range from Benjamin Disraeli and Thomas Paine to the Duchess of Marlborough and Jonathan Swift, His heroes usually share one trait: a determined foresight. As he writes in his profile of Disraeli, "the good Tory": "If anything is really to be done in the world, it must be done by visionaries; men who see the future, and make the future because they see it."

Diverse as their backgrounds are, Foot's idols also share a social conscience. Bonar Thompson, an anarchist Hyde Park orator whom Foot befriended, believed so strongly in his own independence and in the immorality of the British political system "that he had never helped to sustain that system with so much as a single movement of his hand or finger." Another radical admired by Foot is Thomas Paine, whose reformist writings, shunned for many years in America, grew so popular in Europe that "he gained an international notoriety such as only pop stars have today." And with his literary heroes, including Swift, William Hazlitt, and Daniel Defoe, Foot's literary expertise and wit are as obvious as his radicalism. At times, Foot appears almost a British William F. Buckley--except with Socialist politics and without uppity pretension.

The leader of Britain's opposition never really talks about himself, only his relations with his personal all-stars. But that doesn't mean Foot's own character doesn't shine through; it does, and impressively indeed. Coming from the Labour party in Britain, which has aligned itself far more with social reform than have America's labor unions in the last decade, Foot not surprisingly demonstrates a broad compassion and concern for personal liberties. And his alliance with disarmament forces and opposition to Western chauvinism in international politics are patent.

Though several of his heroes, like Thompson, the Hyde Park orator, lived in poverty, Foot avoids the common error of identifying poverty as a virtue. Those leaders who surmounted poverty, or better yet, reached great political or cultural heights while enveloped in it, are to be admired; but to Foot, those cases of success are sources of inspiration, not complacency. He avoids that unattractive political ailment, knee-jerk liberalism, by meshing compassion and a sense of the practical better than most. Michael Foot will never be Prime Minister of Britain. His party remains so divided that electoral victory will be elusive. Besides, at 68 years of age, Foot's chances may be slipping. Even if his many talents should remain on the outside looking in, however, Foot should prove a lasting inspiration to many, much as his 14 Renaissance-men heroes so obviously have been to him. Perhaps some day, one who idolizes Foot--on either side of the Atlantic--will assume power. Then, perhaps, we could learn what a broad-minded visionary could actually to, and whether Rousseau was right, after all.

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