May 10, 2012
No American had a voice in the decisions made in London this day in 1940. It was an entirely British matter. But President Roosevelt had said this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny. For millions of us, our destiny would be entwined with the decisions made across an ocean on May 10, 1940.
My own parents would likely never have met had the U.S. not been drawn into World War II. Thats true for tens of millions of us. And drawing America into that war was the Number One objective of the man who became Prime Minister this day in 1940. No one ever studied the whims of his mistress more carefully than I studied Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill would say. Thats an odd way of putting it for this man who was famously faithful to his beloved and brilliant wife, Clementine. She was taller than he was, too. Thats usually a sign of a secure ego.
Carlo DEstes book, Warlord, is a biography of Winston Churchill at war. He was at war, too, it seems from the day he graduated from Sandhurst, Englands military academy. He saw action on the Afghan frontier with the British army in India. He fought in the last great cavalry charge at Omdurman in the Sudan. Then, he was fighting against militant Muslims. He killed many of them. And some of them tried to kill him. Nothing is as exhilarating as to be shot at without result, he said of his experience there. Young Winston was just a lowly lieutenant in Lord Kitcheners army fighting the Dervishes. Those fanatical warriors followed a Muslim holy man they called the Mahdithe Expected One. When the Mahdi died and Lord Kitchener allowed his grave to be desecrated, young Winston protested loudly. He was courageous, not only against Britains enemies, but courageous on the home front, as well. When he was captured during the Boer War in South Africa in 1899, everyone on both sides testified to his fearlessness. Churchill as POW could not be restrained, however. He hated being confined in any way. DEste relates the controversy over Churchills escape from the Boers. Did he abandon his fellow POWs? Or did he jump at the chance to escape while they held back? Its not entirely clear.
What is clear is that he took advantage of a trip to the latrine to squeeze his then-slender frame through a hole in the wall. As they would say of him, Winston stepped out of the loo and into history.
And what a step! Once, at a large London dinner party, he annoyed his bosss daughter by dominating table conversation. Violet Bonham Carters father was Prime Minister H.H. Asquith at the time. Mr. Churchill, dont you know we are supposed to be humble? Winston wasnt having any of that. I know we are all worms, he said (he knew his Psalms), but I do believe I am a glowworm.
Glow he did. Several years ago, I told the interns at Family Research Council that Winston Churchills life may have been the best documented human life ever lived. Trip Dyer, one of the brightest our Witherspoon Fellows, challenged me.
Trip said he thought the current Prince Williams life may be more documented. I took his point. We do live in a Twitter Age.
And one thing you learn from DEstes Warlord book is that Churchill did not mind being contradicted. But youd better be able to maintain your point with facts and arguments. I still maintain that Churchills life is the best documented human life ever lived because we know so much of what Churchill thought about everything because he wrote everything down. Its hard to imagine that he had any thought that he did not write. And thats not the case with Prince William.
My own wife is taller than I am. (That, I promise, is the end of Churchill comparisons.) She could not believe I needed yet another Churchill book. After dropping me off at the Naval Academy recently, she called me on her cell phone. A police officer at Annapolis City Dock had stopped her. You know that thumping sound I told you about, she said. The policeman showed me that your Warlord book was rattling around on the roof of our SUV. Everything youve ever heard about the absent-minded history prof is true, Im sorry to say.
But I have not forgotten this: President Obama tossed the bust of Winston Churchill out of the White House into the snow. He spurns the advice and counsel of the great British war leader. Too bad.
Theres a lot to learn from Churchill. A key lesson has to do with Jerusalem. Mr. Obamas cringing spokespeople cannot decide whether Jerusalem is the capital of Israel or not. They have no trouble telling you that Berlin is the capital of Germany. But somehow, the Obama administration is confused about Israels capital city. Churchill had the answer to that one, too: Let the Jews have Jerusalem. It is they who made it famous.