The Silences of General de Gaulle

Douglas Johnson

We are battered and bruised by politics. We are bemused by an apparently unending series of elections. After the West Germans, Portuguese, Australians, Jamaicans and Americans, we await the French and the Israelis. And in a separate pigeonhole there is the British Labour Party and its choice of leader. For all that each one of these contests deserves a separate and distinct analysis, we are bludgeoned into accepting the same approach and the same treatment. Thus we have been told that Schmidt is centre left and that he needs to appear as if he were more to the right, while Giscard d’Estaing is centre right and seeks to appear as if he were centre left. Foot is too nice, so much so that he is the nicest prime minister we will never have, but Healey is not nice enough and his past bullying of the unions has lost him their enthusiasm if not their support. Foot is romantic, Healey pragmatic. Carter appealed because he was able to show how he had assumed all the complicated burdens of office, but Reagan appealed because he was able to show himself as a direct man who had the determination to dominate and solve problems. Carter is not at ease within himself; Reagan is a man who is at ease.

Such judgments flow easily from the commentators. Take the case of Richard Nixon. He is described as having been simply a politician, a pure politician without principle other than that of acquiring and hanging on to office. But how does this explain his reactions when he is in office? Then we are told that he is an example of the middle-class individual who has been denied any opportunity to realise himself as an important or meaningful member of society. Therefore he flees forward, he is always conscious of crises ahead, he is anxious to create issues if they do not arise of their own accord, he is bound to commit blunder because he is always taking risks as part of his never-ending action. But at the same time, we are told that he assumes that he can get away with things, that the public will not notice, will not care, will become bored and remain phlegmatically ignorant. And, after other speculations and interpretations, we are inevitably treated to a conclusion about Nixon as an enigma, or Nixon in search of his own identity.

When any shoddy politician can exercise the imagination of political journalists and historians, then our expectations are naturally low. Whoever it was who said of Nixon’s successor, ‘I think that Gerald Ford is what he seems to be,’ made a most satisfactory statement. But it is understandable that people should think that it is worthwhile to speculate about the characters and ingenuities of politicians. It is easily assumed that politics is something which people do. Politicians are therefore scrutinised in order to find out what they wanted to achieve, what they achieve and how they achieve it. Political parties are analysed in terms of their aims and composition. Politics is thought to be a sphere of action and politicians are thought of as practitioners with varying degrees of energy, skill, freedom and purpose. But in fact this is not always so. To understand why it isn’t, we should turn to a man whom even the meanest of commentators have recognised as being out of the ordinary, General de Gaulle. Since the tenth anniversary of his death in November 1970 is being marked by a spate of books and articles about him, perhaps it is all the more appropriate to reconsider his unusual career.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] ‘Dossier De Gaulle’. Histoire Magazine, No 10.