By Reviewed by John French
By Paul Johnson
Penguin Books (paperback) $15
One may reasonably argue that Winston Churchill was the most important statesman and the most quotable public figure of the 20th century. But how to get to know him has been a daunting problem. After all, his official biography consists of eight volumes and the leading one-volume biography runs to 1,000 pages.
British historian Paul Johnson has provided the solution. His "Churchill" gives us a clear, concise, readable picture of the man in less than 200 pages. By judicious selection of anecdotes and observations, Johnson admirably reveals his subject's many virtues and occasional lapses without burying the reader in bewildering detail. There are, to be sure, occasional British turns of phrase that baffle the American mind but these are few and unobtrusive.
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill died in 1964, when the majority of Americans living today had not yet been born. That is too bad. They missed something special.
Born in 1874 into a line descended from the first Duke of Marlborough, Winston was the first child of remarkable parents, the mercurial Lord Randolph Churchill, who rose near the top of British politics, and the remarkable American, Jennie Jerome, who, in the prime of her life, was accustomed to being the most beautiful woman in any room.
Young Winston had every material advantage plus access to the best that English education could offer, yet he failed to master Latin or Greek and was considered a mediocre student. However, to his great personal benefit, as well as ours, he mastered the English language and used it to inspire the English-speaking peoples of the world to prevail over Axis tyranny against high odds.
In promoting his career, Winston and his gorgeous mother shamelessly pursued every opportunity. "This is a pushing age," Winston wrote to Jennie, "and we must push with the best."
Having obtained a commission in the army, Winston determined that the only way to become famous was to find a war. His unit was ordered to India but there was a fine war going on in Cuba so he and Jennie pulled strings, not only to get him transferred to Cuba but up to the front, writing dispatches for the Daily Graphic newspaper. Somehow or another, in addition to earning 25 guineas from the Graphic, he also won a medal from the government of Spain.
Next, Winston took part in a British campaign in India, where he saw action, was under fire and wrote for the Daily Telegraph, all of which supplied the material for his first book. Then it was off to Egypt and participation in one of the last cavalry charges in British history, followed, of course, by more well-paid press reports and another book.
And on he went, this time for another newspaper, to the Boer War in South Africa, where he was captured, escaped, made it back through Boer lines and found himself a national hero. Obviously, what he lacked as a student was more than compensated by courage and energy.
More books were published, more writing fees earned, more medals bestowed and, in 1899, Churchill was elected to parliament. What followed, even in Johnson's admirably lucid prose, was a dizzying series of ups and downs.
His brilliance at parliamentary debate brought Churchill advancement but his brashness made many enemies, as did his willingness to switch parties when that seemed to advance his interests. At one time or another he ran for office under six different party labels.
By the age of 31, Churchill was given a junior position in the cabinet. Following two promotions, with a war looming, he was advanced to a truly grand post, First Lord of the Admiralty. There he had the excitement of rebuilding the navy and enjoying the use of a 4,000-ton yacht.
When World War I did erupt, Churchill rendered excellent service until the British disastrously attacked Gallipoli in an effort to knock Turkey out of the war and Prime Minister Asquith sacrificed Churchill to assuage public opinion. Having risen high, he was totally out.
For Churchill, there was no sulking in obscurity. He learned to paint and, rejuvenated by art, got himself a commission to fight in the trenches in France. Before long, a new prime minister brought him back to power as minister of munitions.
Twice more, in the 1920s and '30s, he was elevated to high office and twice more lost his position. By the time Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Churchill was a lonely outsider calling for enhanced military preparedness in the face of a smothering popular mood of pacifism.
Only in 1939, after Hitler had invaded Poland, was Churchill called back to resume his post at the Admiralty and in May 1940, Churchill was made prime minister. The rest is not merely history but history in capital letters punctuated by exclamation points.
Johnson is careful to recount not only Churchill's triumphs but his blunders. He also gives 10 cogent and convincing reasons why Churchill was essential to British survival and eventual victory in World War II.
In his Epilogue, Johnson identifies five lessons to be learned from Churchill:
1. Always aim high.
2. There is no substitute for hard work.
3. Never allow personal mistakes or disasters to get you down.
4. Do not waste energy on the "meannesses" of life, like blame, malice, hatred and revenge.
5. Fill your life with joy and give joy to others.
In this rancorous election year, Churchill still has much to teach his American cousins.