Self-Absorbed Outsider and His Path to Prime Minister

Article excerpt



By Christopher Hibbert

Palgrave MacMillan, $29.95, 352 pages


Disraeli is the 38th book by Christopher Hibbert, the prolifically distinguished British historian who has written on a range of subjects from the Battle of Agincourt to Mussolini. If this biography is more troubling than some of his others it is because the person being portrayed is one of the real jerks of British history.

All persons who deliberately set out to make a name in the political arena have some fatal flaw or other. I mean, what sane person deliberately goes in for that nonsense? Many of these wannabes are morally obtuse, some are truly psychopathic. Many have only a shaky hold on political convictions, others (here one thinks of Winston Churchill) change their party affiliations more often than their socks. The most dangerous oftentimes are those possessed of a single idea.

Disraeli, whose sole cause was himself, had all of the flaws of self-absorption, faithlessness, emotional instability, cynicism, financial profligacy, and a flair for demagoguery that was unrivaled at the time. Think of Huey Long or, if you will, of Bill Clinton. Nevertheless, Disraeli turned out to be one of the better Victorian prime ministers, who in his duels with Liberal darling William Gladstone burnished the golden days of the Empire and set the beginnings of the culture of present-day Britain.

Indeed, the life of Disraeli underscores one of the hardy perennials of dinner table argument: Why it is that so many of the crafty, selfish and nasty of political figures turn out to be pretty adept at high office (think of Wilson, FDR, or LBJ), while the decent figures called to greatness so often fail (Hoover or Mr. Carter). What is it about the outsider that makes for greatness in leadership?

Benjamin Disraeli was an outsider, make no mistake about that. He was born in 1804 and named after his grandfather, Benjamin D'Israeli, who had emigrated from the Jewish ghetto of Venice in the early 1700s and made a fortune as a merchant trader. The fortune enabled his son Isaac to follow the leisurely life of a bookish gentleman devoted to his growing library and to the boy Benjamin, his sister and two younger brothers. The mother died early but Ben commanded the life-long devotion of both his father and Sarah, his sister.

Considering the rank anti-Semitism of Regency England, the Disraeli family (as their name now became) enjoyed considerable access and welcome among the establishment of finance and the arts. The two younger boys attended Winchester school and Ben, unhappily, was admitted to one of the Inns of Court to study law. He hated it and turned his hand to writing, using his father's friendship with publisher John Murray as a stepping stone to gain entrance to the hermetically sealed world of English letters.

His first novel, a roman a clef, was written when he was 22, and it mercilessly lampooned many prominent figures in the arts world, including his old patron John Murray. Although the book was a success, it gained Disraeli the first building blocks of a reputation as a betrayer. He never batted an eye apparently, and what is astonishing is that he found a steady procession of people who would befriend him, be betrayed by him, and be replaced by others who would lend him support (and increasing sums of money) knowing well in advance what was in store for them.

Indeed, Mr. Hibbert portrays Disraeli as deriving some secret pleasure in earning the disapproval of others, reveling even when the constant opprobrium of "horrid Jew" was hurled at him by nearly everyone short of Queen Victoria herself. Most of his life he dressed in the extremes of foppish fashion that would have caused the Regency beaus to blush, his dark hair oiled into girlish ringlets, his conversation carefully styled into the bored waspish snide tone that made women giggle and men sneer. …