Big fish leave wide wakes

Popular or forceful leaders often find it difficult to relinquish center stage, leaving their successors exposed. Both Margaret Thatcher, who was forced out during her third term (Blair, beware), and Ronald Reagan, who rode off into the sunset after his second, periodically sniped at their less ideologically attuned, hand-picked successors, respectively John Major and George H.W. Bush. Major won a narrow victory in 1992, avoiding the fate of an abbreviated single term, but his elected period in office, 1992-97, was beset with charges of weakness, made worse by Thatcherite potshots. Reagan was lukewarm in supporting Bush, despite the latter’s skillful handling of the ending of the Cold War, and Bush the elder failed in his attempt at re-election. Two earlier cases provide even more dismal background reading for leaders looking for clues to successful baton-passing. In 1963 the giant of early postwar West Germany, Konrad Adenauer, retired, with his long-term finance minister Ludwig Erhard taking over with a sterling reputation in generating Germany’s «economic miracle.» The result? Germany’s first (mild) postwar recession hit, and the Erhard era was brief. In France, Charles de Gaulle might have frustrated his successor, Georges Pompidou, had he not died just a year after leaving the presidency in 1969. Another giant, Winston Churchill, had an even more grievous time with his successor, Anthony Eden. Re-elected in 1951, the aging Churchill was reluctant to hand over the reins to his longtime heir apparent, fearing Eden was not up to the job. He was right. The Suez crisis erupted within a couple of years of the handover, and an exhausted Eden was hounded from office, although the Conservatives lasted another seven years under Harold Macmillan. The lesson seems to be that the biggest shoes are also the hardest to fill.

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