John Dickerson is a correspondent for 60 Minutes. He is also a Contributing Editor to The Atlantic and the host of the Whistlestop podcast and co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

Humor and Leaders: John Lewis Gaddis

I have been going through stacks of papers finding things I never had time to put in The Hardest Job in the World.

Here is an exchange with John Lewis Gaddis on his latest book On Grand Strategy

We had a wonderful, wide ranging conversation on the CBS This Morning podcast, but here’s a part I particularly liked about the necessity of humor:

26:59 JG: A sense of humour I think is critical in all of this. It’s that ability to assess yourself and not take yourself too seriously. And I think that’s something that Octavian and Augustus had, Elizabeth I had, certainly FDR had but at the same time Xerxes did not, Philip II did not, Napoleon certainly did not, even Woodrow Wilson did not. And I see that as one of the key indicators.

27:42 JD: Robert Gates said one key thing in presidential attributes was a sense of humor. He said Nixon and Carter didn’t have a sense of humor. Let’s stay on the sense of humor. If they can laugh at themselves it demonstrates what in their character?

28:00 JG: It demonstrates first of all self awareness and an awareness of one’s own limitations. You have to be aware that your capabilities are not compatible with your aspirations in all respects. A sense of that — do you regard it as a tragedy as Philip II did or do you regard it as a comedy as I think in some ways FDR, Octavian, others did. It’s the ability to assess yourself, to self correct, that’s always easier for someone who has a sense of humor. It’s the basis for one of the great distinctions that Isaiah Berlin made in his philosophical writing. He said that positive liberty is the kind of liberty in which you are told how to be happy. Starts out sounding good but is terrible. Negative liberty is the respect for individual autonomy, the freedom to decide for yourself what makes you happy. And that would be democracy, autonomy. And I think this gets back to temperament because I know very few positive liberty thinkers who have a sense of humor. I know of a considerable number of negative liberty thinkers who did. And I think that maybe another one of these key indicators that tells you something.

 

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