Nov. 30, 2011
Trip Dyer, one of the brightest of all our FRC interns, challenged me when I told his class I thought Winston Churchill’s life was the most documented human life ever lived. Trip thought that it was likely that the present Prince William’s life has been better recorded. He may have had a point there.
We certainly didn’t have photographs of Winston’s minutes after his birth—seven months after his parents’ marriage—on this day in 1874. But we know he was born not in his parent’s fashionable London flat. Instead, after his mother’s riding mishap that day, he came into the world early. He was born at Blenheim Palace, the ducal estate of his famous Marlborough ancestors. They were not nearly so famous then as they would become. Winston would write four great volumes on the great Duke of Marlborough, who had defeated the armies of Louis XIV and who was a central figure in England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89. Many American Founders looked to that revolution as their model for our own.
Winston was intensely proud of his noble English forbears. But he was just as proud of his American antecedents. His mother, Jennie Jerome, was a beauty from New York, whose tycoon father owned the New York Times. Jennie’s ancestor was said to be Pocahontas. That American princess married an Englishman and captivated the royal court of her own day with her beauty and wit.
Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was a reforming politician, a Tory democrat, who was on track to become Prime Minister before he rashly challenged his party leader, Prime Minister Salisbury. Like Icarus who flew too close to the sun, Lord Randolph fell from the post of Lord Chancellor of the Exchequer—second highest in the House of Commons, never to rise again.
All his life, Winston would be dogged by his father’s spectacular flame-out. He was haunted by his father’s ghost, too. When, during World War I, Winston was cast out of the government, people shook their heads and said: Like father, like son. Unsteady. Winston was given the blame for the disastrous Dardanelles campaign. Tens of thousands of British, Australian, and New Zealand troops died in a vain attempt to knock the Ottoman Turks out of the war. The movie “Gallipoli” shows the horror of that ill-starred campaign. But Winston’s plan was never put into being. He was the scapegoat of others who resented his genius and his willingness to take a risk so that the long, bloody stalemate of trench warfare could be ended. Winston even then had a gift for the gripping phrase. Britain’s Tommies, he said, could be better employed in a flanking movement around the German front than to “chew barbed wire in Flanders.”
Throughout the 1930s, his “wilderness years,” Winston went unheeded. He was a voice crying in the wilderness, warning of the “Nozzie” peril. Instead, Prime Minister Chamberlain came back from Munich, promising “peace in our time.” His piece of paper, with Hitler’s signature upon it, lasted less than six months.
President Obama famously pitched the bust of Winston Churchill into the snow days after his arrival in the White House. That’s perhaps another reason I admire Winston so. Once hailed as “a sort of God,” by Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, no one today can tell you what Obama said at Normandy, just two years ago. I can tell you what Winston did there 67 years ago. He demanded to go over with the first of the landing craft. General Eisenhower—the five-star Supreme Commander—could not order Prime Minister Churchill to stay behind. But King George VI could. And he told Winston that if he insisted on exposing his life to such danger, then he, the King and Emperor, would go ashore with him. Only then did Winston relent. He got his chance, though.
Just weeks later, he made it to Hitler’s impregnable Siegfried Line. That line bristled with guns and land mines. Winston approached it with his famous Havana cigar between his teeth. He flashed his inimitable “V” for Victory sign. Then, winking at staff and reporters, he urinated on Hitler’s line.
President Obama prefers the piddling protesters of Occupy Wall Street. Say, Mr. President, I’d be happy to trade a CD of Winston’s speeches for a copy of that iPod you gave the Queen that contained all of your speeches.
President Kennedy thought better of Winston. He made him an honorary American citizen. He praised him with memorable words. “He marshaled the English language and sent it into battle.”
Indeed, he did. He faced down the menace of Hitler and he rallied the Western democracies to stand firm against an Iron Curtain.
I must have read dozens of books about the well-documented life of Winston Churchill. Only one ever said he was a Christian. Inspector Tommy Thompson of Scotland Yard in “Assignment Churchill” was emphatic. Winston always identified with the least of his brethren. He always thirsted for righteousness. No one else offered such a testimony. But Tommy Thompson spent nineteen years as Winston’s bodyguard, ready to lay down his life for his friend at any moment.
Perhaps he knew something we did not.