Certain Trumpets Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

While critics decry a lack of leadership, public opinion polls confirm that many Americans distrust those who are entrusted to lead them. Meanwhile, universities and colleges promote their students as leaders in the making, and, especially in politics, there is no lack of people who claim that they can provide the needed direction. Thus, leadership is a American buzzword.

What is leadership, and what, in particular, is good leadership in a democracy like the United States? Such questions are crucial because the idea of good leadership contains an important ambiguity. Good leadership frequently gets equated with effective leadership. Effective leadership, however, may or may not be good—as least insofar as the term “good” contains ethical meanings that make one evaluate goals and the means used to achieve them.

Promising to create more effective leaders, though not necessarily good ones in a moral sense, various how-to books accumulate every year. While leadership is also its concern, Garry Wills’sCertain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders does not belong to that genre. No simplistic leadership manual, this book meditates deeply on the qualities of intelligence and character that good and effective leadership requires.

Not all of Wills’s book is about leadership in the United States, but it clearly focuses on the American scene. For that reason, Wills resists a typical American desire for quick-fix recipes and shows instead the importance of study about the conditions that make leadership possible and necessary. Such study attends to historical circumstances, factors of timing and opportunity, and relationships among people, places, and powers.

Wills has long had a knack for writing prize-winning books about American life. In previous works such as Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992), Nixon Agonistes (1970), and Inventing America (1978), he deployed a masterful combination of disciplined scholarship, philosophical reflection, and irresistible story telling. Certain Trumpets employs those resources again, adding to them insightful spins of imagination that ask unconventional questions. What, for example, do Eleanor Roosevelt and George Washington have in common? How might they differ from two other examples— Adlai Stevenson and Madonna—who have some striking, if heretofore unnoticed, similarities?

Certain Trumpets raises such questions because Wills turns his book into a gallery. With metaphorical trumpet calls providing background, Wills’s gallery contains thirty-two biographical sketches. These sketches are paired by type and “antitype,” the latter category containing people who clarify a leadership type by illustrating flaws and failures. Thus, Wills takes George Washington’s antitype to be Oliver Cromwell, a less successful revolutionary. Eleanor Roosevelt’s is Nancy Reagan. Madonna, on the other hand, plays antitype to artistic leader Martha Graham, while Adlai Stevenson appears in contrast to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Wills’s pairings illustrate sixteen kinds of leadership. They range from what he calls the charismatic (the biblical King David) and diplomatic (Andrew Young) to the rhetorical (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and intellectual (Socrates). In each case, Wills fortifies his analyses with insights from theorists such as Niccolò Machiavelli, Max Weber, and Carl von Clausewitz—three individuals judged by Wills to be “the most original and influential in their writings on leadership.”

Many things happen in Wills’s book, but far from exhausting the possibilities, his eclectic collection suggests that the list of leaders in the book’s table of contents could go on and on. Styled impressionistically, each biographical miniature includes fascinating, little-known details that enrich Wills’s interpretations of the leading lives he depicts. The result is a historical and ethical understanding of major themes contained in what his subtitle identifies as “the call of leaders.”

Wills’s well-crafted choice of a title focuses the book’s perspective in a few words, especially when one notes the epigraph that follows the title page. This epigraph raises a question asked by St. Paul in one of the New Testament’s letters to the Corinthians: “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”

In Wills’s use of trumpet imagery, multiple meanings can be heard. Uncertain sounds—confusion, ambiguity, conflict, dissonance—are all around. They leave people puzzled, perplexed, even paralyzed. Such uncertainty makes us wonder what to do; it even makes us wonder whether anything can be done to improve our circumstances decisively. By contrast, leadership depends, first, on hearing certain trumpets.

To be a leader, a person has to discern something akin to a trumpet’s call. A stirring is felt, an idea forms, that something important needs to be done. Awareness dawns that what needs doing will not get done unless the person who hears a certain trumpet also follows its call. In this way, a leader is a follower, and what is followed is the beckoning of a possibility that can direct a person’s life and make that life one of direction, too. By hearing “certain trumpets,” then,...

(The entire section is 2158 words.)