Meeting Gorbachev, Fleeing Imelda

An instructor wonders: Which leaders from history will my students see as weak and strong?

October 29, 2020
 

For the last module of my Principles of Leadership class, I am assigning two documentaries. One is Werner Herzog and Andre Singer’s Meeting Gorbachev, which chronicles the unlikely rise of an agricultural leader from the provinces of Russia to the highest echelons of Soviet power, his efforts to reform the old Soviet Communist system and his fall from power.

I wanted to watch Meeting Gorbachev at home one evening with my 11-year-old son. He wasn’t interested. I proposed that I could tell him the story of World Wars I and II and the Cold War, and then explain what Gorbachev did for humanity. Then he could say yes or no.

Using stick drawings, I described the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, alliances that stumbled into war and the bloody consequences. We discussed Germany’s defeat and humiliation, reparations, and Hitler’s rise. Then on to Pearl Harbor and an even bigger second world war. We finished with the Cold War, when the U.S. and U.S.S.R., with their allies, armed themselves with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the earth many times over. I told my son that Gorbachev ended the Cold War and started denuclearization. He agreed to watch the movie.

I met Gorbachev four times. Once he was at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where we traded autographed books (his memoir and my book on Russian nationalism). Watching Meeting Gorbachev made me recall his qualities as a humane leader. Empires do not fall peacefully, but the Soviet Union fell relatively peacefully because Gorbachev had little appetite for blood. He had power but wanted to use it to reform his country, not crush others.

He ended the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He was the first Soviet leader to rub shoulders with ordinary people at home and abroad. He treated his wife, Raisa Maksimovna, as a real partner. He believed in dialogue and transparency, as evidenced by his glasnost (openness) campaign. He wanted to improve conditions for the Soviet people -- in his words, “more democracy and more socialism,” defined as a better quality of life. He ended the division of Germany. He signed arms control agreements, showing that peace was possible. His reward was to lose his country and his political power.

The other movie I’m assigning is Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker, a documentary on Imelda Marcos of the Philippines. Imelda is known for the 3,000 pairs of shoes found in her palace after a people’s uprising in 1986 overthrew her husband, Ferdinand Marcos (who later died in exile in Hawaii). In 1991 the Marcoses returned to the Philippines to rebuild their power base. Imelda, her son and one of her daughters won major political offices. They never returned billions in wealth looted from the country. They never apologized to tens of thousands of former detainees and torture victims, or to families of people who “disappeared” during the Marcos dictatorship. When queried, Imelda claimed innocence in the 1986 assassination of her husband’s political nemesis, Benigno Aquino, who was shot dead on the airport tarmac in Manila after he returned from U.S. exile.

Imelda’s grotesque sense of entitlement to power included emptying an island and dislocating Indigenous tribes so that her family could start their own safari with zebras and giraffes from Africa. In 2016, her family allegedly bankrolled the election of the new Philippine president (who is now accused of thousands of extrajudicial killings). Her own son nearly won the vice presidency in the same election. Her endgame, the movie implies, was to make her son president and restore her family to the apex of power. When asked about her deceptions, Imelda unflinchingly declared, “Perception is real, and the truth is not.”

Earlier in the semester, I asked my class to read Machiavelli’s The Prince. We had lively exchanges on power and leadership. How is power to be exercised? Do ethics and values matter? Is morality, per Machiavelli, nothing more than a tactical means to acquire and retain power? Is “criminal virtue,” referring to occasional and swift ruthlessness, essential for effective leadership?

In the early 1990s, my boss and I met with Gorbachev at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. On our way out, the elevator stopped and in walked a tall lady with a bouffant hairdo. It was Imelda Marcos. “Imelda!” I exclaimed. “Do I know you?” she replied. “No,” I said, “but I know you!” Then the doors opened, and we exited. I grew up in the Philippines. Marcos’s henchmen brutally killed one of my fellow student activists. The editor of my college paper was arrested several times for her writings. I walked briskly away, feeling an old fear return.

How will my students define power and how it should be exercised? Will they see Gorbachev as a weak leader and Imelda the strong one? When does power become immoral? Does goodness equal weakness? We may not have clear and easy answers to these questions, but I’m looking forward to a lively class discussion in a few weeks.

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