The long goodbye: Why so many public figures don't know when to bow out

Parting is such sweet sorrow - which might be why so many public figures have a hard time knowing when to bow out. From champions who step into the ring once too often, to captains of industry who preside over boom as well as bust (not to mention politicians who go from hero to zero), Andy McSmith offers some cautionary tales
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In these days, when we expect our leaders to be relatively young, it is a bit of a surprise to recall that Churchill was past the normal retirement age even before he became Prime Minister the first time round. It might have been thought that he would retire in 1945, but he insisted on staying on as opposition leader so that he could get back into 10 Downing Street, which he did in 1951, just weeks before his 77th birthday. A heavy drinker and smoker, he had suffered a heart attack, three attacks of pneumonia and two strokes by the time he reached 80. Still he refused to hand over to Anthony Eden, having convinced himself that his status as the last survivor of the "big three" wartime leaders gave him the authority to end the Cold War. He bowed out in April 1955, aged 80 years and five months.


Jacko was working the clubs as the lead singer for the Jackson Five in 1966, at the age of seven, before going solo. His 1982 album Thriller sold 104 million copies, making it the most successful album in pop history, and gave the music industry as a whole a bumper year. In 1984, there came a highly publicised invitation to the White House. His 1987 album, Bad, had more than two million advance orders. Even in 2001, eight years after the first accusation about his relationships with children, his latest album sold 8 million copies. Then, in 2002, Sony abruptly ended his contract, his Heal the World Foundation was suspended for failing to file annual statements, and he was photographed holding his baby over the railings of a hotel balcony in Berlin. In 2005 he went on trial, charged with child molestation. He was acquitted. However, his image had suffered terminal damage, his finances were rumoured to be precarious, and he left America for a new life in the Middle East. He is said to be planning a comeback.


When Labour was an opposition party, Clare Short was rather good at resigning. She was the only person who managed to resign from the opposition front bench twice, and come back twice. She first resigned in the 1980s in opposition to the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and again in 1990 over the first Gulf War. But the one occasion when resignation might have made a difference was in March 2003, before the American-led invasion of Iraq. On 9 March, she described the proposed action as "reckless". Yet on 18 March she sat tight at the Department for International Development and voted for the war, while Robin Cook and others resigned. On 12 May, she changed her mind and walked out. That two-month delay fatally damaged her standing on the Labour left. Some even maintain that if she had resigned at the right time, Parliament might not have voted to send British troops to war.


In the 1960s, Muhammad Ali was arguably the greatest of all time. By 1980, he was 38 years old, and really needed to stop. Yet despite others' misgivings, Ali was intent on fighting the world heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes. Holmes, who had once been Ali's apprentice, agreed reluctantly to the fight, which was staged in Las Vegas on 2 October 1980. Holmes won every punch, but after several rounds he was holding back, fearful of giving his old teacher a real beating. Ali's team threw in the towel after 11 rounds. "All I could think of after the first round was 'Oh God, I still have 14 rounds to go'," he said afterwards. It emerged later that before the fight he had been examined and found to have symptoms of brain damage, but the promoter Don King had withheld the report. Ali had one more dismal professional fight before he finally gave up.


He was probably never meant to be anything more than the bureaucrat who drew up the agenda for Politburo meetings. He attached his career to Leonid Brezhnev's in the 1950s, and should have retired when Mr Brezhnev died in 1982, or sooner. But in 1984, and fearful of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leaders pushed Konstantin Chernenko into becoming president of the USSR. He was 72. To be fair, he was younger than the deputy president, who was 83, the prime minister, who was 78, and the minister in charge of the nuclear weapons industry, a Mr Slavsky, who was 86. Chernenko was more or less permanently hospitalised after a few months in office. During his confinement, documents were signed by officials with a facsimile of his signature. He was president for 13 months.


One of the most important figures in 20th-century popular culture, his talent, charisma and sexuality sold more than a billion records and made him famous the world over. In 1975, he turned 40. Soon afterwards, observers noticed that his stage performances were deteriorating. His stomach had ballooned, and his mind had gone dull from the drugs he had ingested. In one performance, he was on stage for less than an hour, and impossible to comprehend. Staff had to struggle to get him on stage; one gig was cancelled because he refused to get out of bed. He wore a corset because he was 225 pounds overweight, and was nervous and poured rivers of sweat. In June 1977, he took a two-month vacation, spending most of it in bed. He was due to start touring again on 17 August. On the eve of his return, the King was found dead in his Memphis bathroom. Elvis fans like to remember the snake-hipped sex-god of the Fifties and Sixties. Others tend to picture him Seventies-style, lumbering about in diamanté jumpsuits.


Her role as Dorothy in the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz still ranks as one the greatest screen performances of all time. She was 16 years old then, and one of MGM's hottest properties. In 1951, she turned to live concert appearances, filling halls across Europe. A good time to call it a day would have been in 1964, when CBS dropped her critically acclaimed weekly television series. Instead, she dragged her children on a tour that degenerated into disaster because of her drinking and drug-taking. Her voice was slurred and she forgot her lyrics. In 1967, she landed a film role in Valley of the Dolls, but the character she was expected to play, an ageing star who ought to have retired, was too close to the truth. She was sacked after a month for constantly missing rehearsals, and died from an overdose of barbiturates in 1969.


Germany's great war hero retired twice. The first time was in 1913, aged 65, after an undistinguished career as a Prussian officer. But he made a comeback and commanded the victorious German army at the Battle of Tannenberg, which made him more popular than the Kaiser himself. After his second retirement in 1919, however, Hindenburg should have stayed at home, rather than allow himself to be persuaded to return to public life. In 1925 he was elected president. Then, despite his failing health, he had no choice but to run for re-election in 1932, being the only candidate who could beat Adolf Hitler. He did his best to keep the Nazis out of power, but in January 1933, at the age of 85, he appointed Hitler Chancellor. He died in office 19 months later.


One of the most familiar and reassuring faces on American television, Rather was the anchorman for CBS Evening News for exactly 24 years, starting on 9 March 1981, when he was already coming up to his 50th birthday. A master of homely delivery and occasionally surreal metaphors, he interviewed presidents and reported on the biggest events in the nation's life.

In September 2004, he reported that documents concerning George W Bush's Air National Guard service had been discovered, documents that purportedly revealed that the future President had been declared unfit for service after disobeying an order to submit to a physical examination. The story sparked a furore when conservative bloggers suggested that the documents were fake. At first, CBS stood by their man. After 12 days, network chiefs issued a humiliating retraction. Four producers lost their jobs, but Rather refused to believe he had been conned. He retired six months later.


General Custer had a fine Civil War record. In recognition of his fearless aggression, his superiors presented him with the table on which Robert E Lee signed the surrender document at Appomattox. By contrast, his first campaign leading the Seventh Cavalry against Native Americans was such a disaster that, in 1867, he was suspended from duty. He was only 28, and could have turned to another career, but he pressed on. In 1875, he swore by the White Buffalo Calf Pipe that he would never fight Native Americans again. The next year he was sacked after falling foul of President Grant, but was reinstated after a public outcry. Back in command of the Seventh Cavalry, Custer came upon a Native American encampment near the Little Big Horn river, saw his chance for glory and charged in. He and all the 210 men with him were killed.


He was a national hero when ill health forced his resignation in 1880. In his early twenties, he had fought with distinction in the Crimean War; he led the defence of Shanghai during the Taiping rebellion in 1862; and, as governor of Equatoria, in the Sudan, he mapped the upper Nile and established the British presence all the way to the border of what is now Uganda. But he was depressed and may have been an alcoholic. In 1884, he gave an interview to The Times attacking the government's decision to withdraw from the Sudan, in the Mahdi rebellion. But then he accepted a commission to go to Khartoum to supervise the evacuation. When he got there, he resolved to hold out under siege until relief arrived. It came on 28 January 1885 - two days after the city had been overrun and Gordon and his troops had been slaughtered.


In the 14th century there was not one Pope, but two. As a result of a power struggle between France and Italy, one pope was based in Rome and the other in Avignon. Since each Pope excommunicated the other's congregation, everyone in Christendom was damned to an eternity of hellfire. When the Avignon Pope died in 1394, the King of France asked the Avignon cardinals not to choose a successor. But the Cardinals had already met, and had been impressed by the pro-mise made by Cardinal de Luna of Spain that, if elected, he would resign should the schism with Rome be resolved. He was elected. The schism was resolved. He did not resign. He clung on, unrecognised, to the title Pope Benedict XIII until his death, aged 94.


For three decades he was one of the giants of British industry - the man who orchestrated the series of mergers and takeovers that created the industrial giant GEC, and who remained as its managing director for 33 years. It continued to turn £1bn profits even in the recession of the early 1990s. But by then Lord Weinstock's star was on the wane: he was out of touch with the mood in the City, and seemed to be hanging on in the hope that he could hand over to his only son, Simon. Tragically, Simon died of cancer in 1996. Weinstock was then 72 years old and, in an unhappy end to a brilliant career, was forced to step down by opponents in the City. GEC is now Marconi, a much smaller concern. When Weinstock died in 2002, aged 77, many said it was of a broken heart.


The Northern Irish player known as "Hurricane" Higgins started young, and won the World Professional Snooker Championship at the first attempt, in 1972, aged 23. He waited another 10 years to win again, in 1982, which might have been a good time to quit. After that, he was in the news more for his excessive drinking and smoking and quick temper than for his playing. He made about £3m, but spent it all. During the 1986 tournament, he headbutted an official. After losing in the 1990 championship, he punched the tournament's press officer, Colin Randle, in the stomach. In 2002, he sued a tobacco company because he had contracted throat cancer, but lost and had to stump up court costs. He was later seen hustling games of pool for money in pubs and clubs, at £10 a time. In 2005, he entered the Irish professional tournament, but lost in the first round.


Pakistan's highest scoring batsman in both Test and one-day international cricket dominated the sport for almost 15 years from his debut in the 1992 World Cup. True, he scored just 19 runs in six innings in the 2003 World Cup, but set that against more than two dozen Test centuries, including 329 against New Zealand in 2002, and his captaincy of Pakistan through 25 Tests. But for the sake of his reputation, he should have quit after the successes of 2005. During the 2006 England tour, he led a protest against accusations of ball tampering at the Oval, refusing to come out of the dressing room after tea, and was the first captain in Test history to forfeit a match. Then, in March this year, he led his team to defeat by Ireland. He announced his retirement the next day - hours after the team coach, Bob Woolmer, had been murdered.