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Political portraits: the patient builder, the juggler

Dag Hammarskjöld was much in demand through the UN years as a speaker at university gatherings. He could be counted on to bring fresh thought and to speak from his breadth of view as secretary-general of the world organization. The following remarks occur toward the end of a commencement address at The Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Maryland), June 14, 1955.

Hammarskjöld said:

Politics and diplomacy are no play of will and skill where results are independent of the character of those engaging in the game. Results are determined not by superficial ability but by the consistency of the actors in their efforts and by the validity of their ideals. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, there is no intellectual activity which more ruthlessly tests the solidity of a man than politics. Apparently easy successes with the public are possible for a juggler, but lasting results are achieved only by the patient builder. …In politics the results of the work of the most brilliant mind will ultimately find their value determined by character. Those who are called to be teachers or leaders may profit from intelligence but can only justify their position by integrity.
(Public Papers 2, 507)

Hammarskjöld’s topic is the link between the character of public leaders and their achievements. His thought here is a cascade of values. Every sentence states or tests a value. This is very like him. He had decades of experience in the political and diplomatic arena, knew a thousand stories about the "play of will and skill." But in his own political practice he put close analysis and clarity of conscience first.

He recognizes the need for results—the word comes up four times in this short statement. If he looks at variations in the character of public leaders, it is in quest of character that serves the common good.

"Contrary to what seems to be popular belief," he says, "no intellectual activity more ruthlessly tests the solidity of a man than politics." That Hammarskjöld deliberately defines politics as an intellectual activity—an exercise of mind and understanding—is encouraging. It restores dignity to public life, or reminds of the possibility. "Solidity" must refer to the ability to think clearly and independently, and to remain true to one’s understanding when inappropriate compromise or surrender would be easier. The word evokes clarity of mind and strength of conviction.

Hammarskjöld knew the value of sensible compromise and, when circumstances required, worked tirelessly to achieve it. But he never lost sight of the importance of principle, therefore of principled compromise.

The second statement is memorable: "Those who are called to be teachers or leaders may profit from intelligence but can only justify their position by integrity." It’s not enough to be intellectually proficient. Something more fundamental is needed. A good mind is a tool that can serve both a "juggler" and a "patient builder". Unanchored in what Hammarskjöld calls valid ideals and sustained practical effort, a good mind is amoral: it notes realities, even brilliantly, but doesn’t necessarily move its owner toward just solutions.

The last word is "integrity". Given all that has been said, we know what he means. The patient builder, burdened but brightened by integrity, looks across at the juggler. And the juggler looks at the builder.