by Sir Arthur Foulkes
Sir John Compton was sworn in as prime minister of St. Lucia last week at the age of 81. He had come out of 10 years of retirement to confront the incumbent, 56-year-old Dr. Kenny Anthony.
His triumphant return generated speculation in the Caribbean about his intentions as well as a lively discussion on the relevance of age in the political arena.
In politics, as in other fields, there are early bloomers and late bloomers, some who never bloom and some, like Sir John, who seem to bloom for a lifetime.
Among the spectacular early bloomers in America in the last century was the charismatic but ill-fated John F. Kennedy who reached the very top in 1960 when at 43 he became the youngest person to be elected president.
Theodore Roosevelt was only 42 when he became president in 1901, but as vice president he was sworn in to complete the term of President William McKinley who had been assassinated.
Both of these relatively youthful leaders left indelible marks on the US and the world. President Kennedy had a shaky start when he approved the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba planned during the administration of his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
That adventure failed but Mr. Kennedy redeemed himself brilliantly in 1962 when he confronted the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis. The two leaders talked and agreed to pull back from the brink of nuclear war.
It was later reported that before his assassination President Kennedy had initiated backdoor diplomatic feelers to normalize US relations with Cuba. Might the world have been a different and better place had he lived?
Theodore Roosevelt became famous for his “speak softly and carry a big stick” dictum. He poisoned the fresh stream of self-determination by asserting US hegemony over Latin America, a policy that yielded bloody consequences for many years and plagues relations between North and South up to this day. But there were also positive aspects of his presidency.
Another relatively young American politician who aspired to the top spot eventually became a rather ridiculous footnote to history after a famous encounter with an older politician.
It was in the 1988 debate between vice presidential candidates Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen that the 41-year-old Mr. Quayle responded to the nagging question about his readiness to be president in the event of the death of the president.
His response was: “I have more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.”
It was a fatal mistake for Mr. Quayle, who was sadly lacking in charisma and who came to be regarded as rather shallow, to compare himself with the late President Kennedy who was not only charismatic but highly intelligent, articulate and witty.
Mr. Bentsen pounced: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy; I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”
Although Mr. Quayle served as vice president to George H. W. Bush, his dreams of becoming a presidential candidate ended and he became the butt of many jokes because of his apparent intellectual vacancy.
Most US presidents in recent times took office in their 50s and 60s with Ronald Reagan being the oldest at 69. Bill Clinton was relatively young at 46.
Morarji Desai was at the far end of the age range in 1977 when he became prime minister of the world’s most populous democracy at the age of 81. He is said to be the oldest person ever to become prime minister of any country for the first time.
Mr. Desai had fought in the nonviolent struggle for the independence of India from imperial Britain and had become familiar with the inside of more than one British jail. Unlike left-leaning Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Mr. Desai was a conservative and served for only two years as prime minister.
He once said, “Life at any time can become difficult; life at any time can become easy. It all depends upon how one adjusts oneself to life.” Morarji Desai obviously adjusted well to the triumphs and defeats of a turbulent life and died in 1995 at the ripe old age of 99.
The history of cabinet government in The Bahamas is very short having started in 1964 when the colony got its first written constitution and first Bahamian head of government, Sir Roland Symonette. Born in December 1898, he became premier at 65.
Sir Roland was succeeded in 1967 by Sir Lynden Pindling who was not quite 37 when he became premier in January 1967. Sir Lynden was born in March 1930. He served as head of government for 25 years and was the first to be styled prime minister.
Hubert Ingraham, born in August 1947, became the third Bahamian head of government in 1992 at the age of 45. Perry Christie succeeded him in 2002 at the age of 59. Mr. Christie was born in August 1943. If his party wins the next election Mr. Ingraham will be the first former Bahamian prime minister to return to office.
Sir John Compton has returned to the top post in St. Lucia for the second time. He became chief minister in 1964 at the age of 39, then premier and prime minister. He served for 15 years until 1979 but returned to office in 1982 for another 14 years.
He resigned in 1996 and handed over the United Workers Party government to Vaughan Lewis, but Mr. Lewis lost to Dr. Kenny Anthony and his St. Lucia Labour Party in 1997 and again in 2001. It was “at the behest of the people”, said Sir John, that he came back to remove the SLP from power.
It appears that Sir John read the people of St. Lucia correctly as they gave the UWP 11 of the 17 House of Assembly seats. They were worried about crime and unemployment while Dr. Anthony and his party were accused of incompetence, arrogance, making unrealistic promises, vilifying opponents and rushing legislation to catch votes.
In his column in The Tribune yesterday, Caribbean expert Sir Ronald Sanders commented on the effect Sir John’s return is likely to have on regional issues including the Petro Caribe oil deal, CSME and the Economic Partnership Agreement being negotiated between Caricom and the European Union.
Sir Ronald also mentioned that two Caribbean prime ministers had gone to St. Lucia to campaign for Dr. Anthony. It is going to be interesting when Sir John confronts these two at the next Caricom meeting and lectures them about interfering in the political affairs of a sister Caribbean state.
But back to the question of old age and political leadership. This is what Sir John told the Caribbean Media Corporation:
“Age is not a factor here; I am not here running for the Olympics. Age is really in the state of mind. I am giving my experience and my intelligence that God gave to me. I am not going for a marathon; I am not going for the Olympics.”
There is something in that for other politicians to bear in mind, especially those who like to impress the voters with their physical vitality. The great US World War II leader, Franklyn D. Roosevelt, spent the most challenging years of his presidency in a wheel chair, not because of old age but because of the effects of a crippling disease.
So political leadership is not necessarily about physical prowess, youth or age but about what one has in one’s head and one’s heart, and about competence, good judgment and integrity.