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Churchill or Bust?

1.

But what did happen to the bust in the White House—or was it busts? One of the subplots to last year’s often dispiriting presidential election campaign was the fate of a bronze bust of a foreign politician born 138 years ago. As The New York Times reported, “the question of whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will occupy the White House has been overshadowed at times by the question of whether Winston Churchill will do so.” According to some accounts, a bust of Churchill has been at the White House since the 1960s, but Margaret Thatcher says that she subsequently presented President Reagan with another bust, and then Tony Blair presented President Bush the Younger with yet another, which Bush put on prominent display. The plot thickens: Just how many busts were there?

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Fox Photos/Getty Images
Winston Churchill with his daughter Mary on his way to receive the Freedom of the City of London, June 1943

At any rate, when Obama was inaugurated, he removed the bust (or one of them) and replaced it with one of Lincoln. But Romney promised to restore Churchill if he won. This was at the time last summer when one of Romney’s advisers said how much the Republican candidate valued the “special relationship” with Churchill’s country, in which case Romney had an odd way of showing his esteem. He visited London to suggest, most insultingly and, as it turned out, quite wrongly, that the British were incapable of staging a successful Olympic Games. And another of Romney’s team spoke of a shared “Anglo-Saxon heritage” insufficiently “appreciated” by Obama, words so laden with none-too-hidden meaning that even Romney had to repudiate them. Needless to say, Paul Ryan managed to find a way (plausibly or otherwise) of enlisting the same holy name as a fiscal conservative: “follow Churchill’s advice: Prudently restrain government spending, while avoiding the kind of tax hikes that would stifle economic growth.”

Just how and why Churchill became not only the honorary American citizen that Congress made him at President Kennedy’s behest but also a tutelary idol for so many American politicians and polemicists is an interesting question. So is another: why images of Churchill should be so ubiquitous today, and not only in Washington. An entire exhibition, “Churchill: The Power of Words,” at the Morgan Library in New York City this summer was devoted to his visage, his voice, and much else associated with him; its huge popular success seems to have taken the Morgan by surprise. And a new statue of Churchill has just been unveiled in Jerusalem, in the presence of his great-grandson Randolph Churchill, while Benjamin Netanyahu has told an admiring interviewer from the London Daily Telegraph that, although he was “worried” about the British today, he nevertheless “has a portrait of his greatest British hero, Winston Churchill, on his shelves,” and posed beside it for the photographer. Oddest of all was the bizarre Olympics closing ceremony, in which Timothy Spall, an excellent actor who had already been wildly miscast as Churchill in The King’s Speech, appeared as a giant Churchill reciting Shakespeare.

And yet, with all this vast iconography and ceaseless invocation, Churchill remains elusive. The political historian Vernon Bogdanor has said that no satisfactory biography of Churchill exists to this day, which might seem sweeping but has some point to it. That has not deterred hopeful biographers. The late William Manchester, who first made his name with The Death of a President, his authorized account of the assassination of President Kennedy, embarked on a three-volume life of Churchill, to be called The Last Lion, but by the end of his second volume, published in 1988, he had only reached 1940 and Churchill’s final ascent to the leadership of his country. Manchester found himself unable to finish the biography well before his death in 2004.

Some years before he died he had found a successor, Paul Reid, even though Reid was a newspaperman and had not written a book before. Reid took over, tried to make sense of Manchester’s vast horde of material, and set about finishing the book, although he says that he decided not to try emulating Manchester’s style. That’s just as well. Churchill himself was condemned by stern critics as “a master of sham-Augustan prose,” who wrote with false or artificial eloquence, but in that case Manchester was sham-sham, and his eloquence falser still. The flavor of the whole may not unfairly be judged from the last sentence of his second volume:

And now, in the desperate spring of 1940, with the reins of power at last firm in his grasp, he resolved to lead Britain and her fading empire in one last great struggle worthy of all they had been and meant, to arm the nation, not only with weapons but also with the mace of honor, creating in every English breast a soul beneath the ribs of death.

As the late Christopher Hitchens observed, “Never in the field of human biography can metaphor have been more epically mixed.”

All the same, Reid has his own penchant for grandiloquent fine writing: “The honorable fight for British survival made the war great for Churchill,” or “Britons, pummeled since 1940, stood by their Winnie.” There is also a good deal of floral decoration: “In tiny Luxembourg, the beauty of the gladioli was unprecedented…. Paris, always Europe’s most colorful city, had joined the dazzling spectacle with cannas, dahlias, daffodils and freesias,” which is one way of ensuring that you write more than a thousand pages. With an iron sense of obligation to the editor and readers of The New York Review, I nevertheless resolved so to brace myself to my duties, and so bear myself, that if I lasted the thousand pages, men would still say, This was his finest hour.

A great deal of work has gone into Reid’s book, and apart from a detailed narrative he makes some effort at objectivity, for all those gushing phrases. He recognizes Churchill’s failings and looks candidly at the question of his drinking, acknowledging that “outright drunkenness,” although rare, did occur, while asserting that “Churchill was not a drunk.” Whatever quite that means, there is no doubt that almost any doctor today presented with a detailed description would say that it was the intake of a functional alcoholic. The best answer to that might be that Churchill did, after all, win the war, and the nonsmoking teetotaling vegetarian Adolf Hitler lost it.

Few books of this length are entirely free of error, but it’s unusual for the mistakes to begin on the dedication page, with a doubly posthumous dedication, as it were, from Manchester to the late John Colville, “Etonian, Civil Servant, Fighter, Pilot, Scholar.” Colville was Churchill’s assistant private secretary during the war, except for a time when he managed to escape from Downing Street to train and fly with the RAF, and he kept the fascinating diaries published in 1985 as The Fringes of Power. He was not an Etonian—he was educated at Harrow, Churchill’s old school—and “Fighter, Pilot” surely has a superfluous comma. Or again, Sir Robert Vansittart was not a Conservative MP; when Churchill met Roosevelt at Placentia Bay in August 1941 he was wearing the esoteric uniform of an Elder Brother of Trinity House, not “the mess dress of the Royal Yacht Squadron”; and Churchill’s adversary Aneurin Bevan came from Tredegar in South Wales, not the little-known “North Wales coalfields.”

A more serious problem is that Reid’s book is lopsided. In February 1937, Churchill wrote to Clementine, his wife, on the perennially fraught subject of domestic finances and whether they could afford to keep their house at Chartwell. He conceded they might sell it, “having regard to the fact that our children are almost all flown, and my life is probably in its closing decade.” Churchill was then sixty-two. In the event, he became prime minister at sixty-five, returned for his improbable second premiership in 1951 before finally leaving Downing Street at eighty, and lived to be ninety. That means that this volume ostensibly covers twenty-five years. But nine tenths of its pages are devoted to the years between 1940 and 1945. And while there’s little to be said about his last decade of decline after 1955, Churchill’s postwar decade in active politics is of great interest.

Then Reid has fallen into a well- known trap by allowing biography to become general history, in this case a general history of the war. But there is no shortage of such histories: several recent full-scale books on the war by the English historians Anthony Beevor, Max Hastings, and Andrew Roberts have been well researched, well written, and well received, not to say best-selling. Again the question may be asked why there is such an insatiable appetite for books about the war. This craving for a heroic age and for leaders of giant stature surely reflects on the most unheroic age in which we now live, and our diminished rulers.

While he grasps some essential points, Reid misses others. For his first eighteen months as prime minister Churchill spoke continually as though the United States was about to enter the war, which was not the case. Before Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt expressed words of sympathy for the British, and supplied some materiel. And yet he not only refrained from going to war until Hitler solved the problem by declaring war on the United States; when he did extend aid, he did so with great ruthlessness, stripping Great Britain of its overseas investments and export trade. In late 1940 Roosevelt went so far as to propose sending an American cruiser to Cape Town to collect $20 million of British gold bullion as a down payment, which Reid aptly likens to “a noncombatant lifting the boots and pocket watch from a dying trooper.”

Then Reid says that Churchill “knew Hitler could not be crushed without American troops.” But the truth was that Germany could not be crushed with American troops. Those other recent histories have been marked by unsparing realism, not least in their most un-Churchillian emphasis on the inadequacy of the British Army as a fighting force (and the US Army also) when faced with the Wehrmacht, and on the plain fact that the Third Reich was defeated by the Red Army. In dealing with Churchill’s strategy, or what passed for it, Reid is for the most part too indulgent. Although he recognizes that invading Italy from the southern end was a most laborious proceeding, he bafflingly writes that “Churchill’s plan was simplicity itself, to drive Italy from the war in order to induce Turkey to enter it.”

In the nearest he comes to sharp criticism, Reid wonders why Churchill and Roosevelt entirely failed to make plans that addressed “the possible—probable, even—consequences to Europe of their alliance with the Russian dictator.” But this was not something Churchill could be unaware of, as opposed to ignore: his embrace of the Soviet Union as an ally in June 1941, and his subsequent endless prevarication over an invasion of northern Europe, ensured that most of the fighting against Germany would be done by the Soviets, who would thus be expected to reach Berlin, Prague, and Vienna before the Anglo-American allies did. Anne Applebaum’s new book Iron Curtain describes the revolting means Stalin and his agents used to consolidate his power in Eastern Europe, destroying civil society in the process, but it was already obvious and inevitable that Stalin would not let go of the territories his armies occupied.

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