Selwyn Ryan’s article “Robinson a good man, hardly great” (Sunday Express, July 20) probably should not have been written, because mainly it required pulling ANR Robinson down a peg. Proving a negative is inherently torturous. In this case the task would entail swimming upstream against the current of not just conventional wisdom, but a well-articulated public record of service of the highest order. Then, against reactions here, across the Caribbean, and across the globe, at Robinson’s passing—the overwhelming sentiment being that he was a luminary. President Carmona’s news release at his passing would have to be negated. In it Carmona characterises ANR as a “colossus” who, not content with just influencing the local environment, extended his gaze to the entire globe through his advocacy of an International Criminal Court.
But this is not to say that we must all praise Caesar. In a democracy we have to hear what the dissenters have to say when an important figure passes. I for one did not like the way in which Euric Bobb, a former island scholar, was dismissed by Robinson from his post as governor of the Central Bank. Even today, Eric Williams has his detractors. Great men are often flawed at some level. But they did not make themselves. We have to forgive them for that. We are probably better off in our consideration of whether greatness is the appropriate mantle in the end, if we consider the bad with the good. So there is a sense in which, as indelicate as it must be to try to pull down a luminary on his passing, Ryan as a scholar could have made a contribution here that compelled us to put aside emotions and to take heed. But here the article comes up short.
For some reason Ryan opted to write himself into the text. There were the two ambassadorships offered him that he rejected. There was the slight and embarrassment of Robinson not showing up as keynote speaker at a conference after having accepted Ryan’s invitation to do so. There was also his threat of a lawsuit that caused Ryan to have to apologise to him for untoward commentary. These vignettes were no doubt important to Ryan as they placed him in proximity with ANR, and perhaps it was felt that these would help crystallise his credibility as a person who could offer difficult but unvarnished truths about Robinson. But do they belong in an assessment of Robinson’s greatness? In my view they did not help the case being made. On the contrary. They told us mainly that the two men were acquainted with each other and that this acquaintance was tense. But how Robinson treated Ryan can’t help us determine anything.
Beyond drawing on himself for testimony, Robinson drew on Basdeo Panday, whose name comes up ten times in the article. This is like asking Joe Frazier if Muhammad Ali is great. He has Panday saying about Robinson that all he wanted was a ride to the Prime Minister’s Office, not giving consideration to those who took him there. But make no mistake, Robinson was the man of the NAR. He brought over the critical Afro votes. Many citizens will remember the strange behaviour of Panday on the night when the NAR was declared winner of the election. Where was his joy? He looked as though he had seen a ghost. Many believed that this was because of the magnitude of the NAR victory—33-3 —the effect of which was to diminish the hold that the ULF could have over the coalition, and to make Robinson much more independent as leader. Soon Panday was talking, indelicately, about the stench in the state room.
Ryan steered clear of material that would show Robinson in good light. He does not speak of his work in Tobago. Nor does he speak of his scholarship. He ignores his role in the invention here of a multi-racial party—the blueprint for the People’s Partnership.
American presidential scholars such as Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns, are important sources of retrospection upon and assessment of past presidents. They work as scholars and get access on that count. What gives them access to presidents, and gives integrity to their work is that they write dispassionately. Ryan’s error was to assume the role of the connected political insider rather than that of the scholar. He deprived himself of needed distance. He compounds that by drawing heavily and almost exclusively upon probably the most biased source we can find locally on the question of Robinson’s stature.
You can’t get scholarship out of that kind of methodology.