Lady Lytton probably summed up the aura of Winston Churchill most effectively when she said, “The first time you meet Winston you see all his faults and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues.” Those who have chronicled Churchill’s life have been liberal about providing a compendium of his faults. Churchill was, after all, an albatross around the necks of a gaggle of British Prime Ministers and politicians from the turn of the century until past its midpoint. One would hardly get an objective appraisal from, say, Ramsay MacDonald, whom Churchill publicly compared to the traveling circus’s Boneless Wonder. The same holds true of most of the other English statesmen of the time who, compared with Churchill, were third-rate men, plain and simple.
Churchill is an excellent subject for a biography because he had such an interesting life. He lived for 91 years, the first 20 of which were more than compensated for by the remainder. In his formative years, he evinced no signs of future greatness, shackled as he was by a brilliant, but distant and increasingly mad, father, Randolph, and a freethinking, absentee mother, Jennie, who gave new meaning to the word promiscuous. It is an everlasting credit to Churchill’s name that, dealt that sort of a hand, he played the game straight. Many political peccadilloes may be attributed to him, but he was never anything but a hardworking man and a faithful husband. Not only was he an outstanding statesman, but he was also an excellent writer (the latter pursued primarily because he had difficulty in keeping his personal finances in order).
After Churchill left the stage, we were left with the politician as manager. He may have been the last truly heroic statesman. Ellen Wilkinson, quoted in Kingsley Martin’s Harold Laski, said, “When Mr. Attlee is presiding in the absence of the Prime Minister the Cabinet meets on time, goes systematically through its agenda, makes the necessary decisions, and goes home after three or four hours work. When Mr. Churchill presides, we never reach the agenda and we decide nothing. But we go home to bed at midnight, conscious of having been present at an historic occasion.” In our statistically minded society, it is easy to disguise insipid leadership by holding up a list of makeshift objectives reached. But this wasn’t Churchill’s way. He was boldness personified.
Churchill may have inadvertently coined an epigraph for a century of leaders—save for the international coterie who made their marks in the World War II era—when he observed an occasion in which “an empty limousine pulled up in front of #10 Downing Street and out stepped Clement Attlee.” The truth of the matter is that most of England’s statesmen of Churchill’s time were what Evelyn Waugh, describing the new modem man symbolized by Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited, called “Tiny pieces of men pretending to be whole.” There can be no doubt of Churchill’s wholeness.
William Manchester chronicles this breadth in his extensive biography of Churchill’s first 58 years. His book appeared at a time when there is a renewed kindling of interest in Churchill. The Last Lion comes on the heels of Ted Morgan’s recent partial biography, Churchill: Young Man In a Hurry, which covers a slightly more compressed period of Churchill’s life. In Manhattan this past spring, the Institute of Design held a showing of Churchill’s surprisingly adept artwork. Public Television’s Masterpiece Theatre recently ran a fine series, entitled Churchill: The Wilderness Years, in which Messrs. Baldwin, MacDonald, and Chamberlain were held up on display as the “tiny pieces of men” that they were. Winnie, a musical based on Churchill in World War II, is slated to open on Broadway.
Why is there this sudden surge of interest in this man of another age, this anachronism, as implied by the title, The Last Lion? I think that the answer, again, centers on the “blandness factor” of modem leadership. All of the works cited above were begun in the decade of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Edward Heath, Giscard d’Estaing, Helmut Schmidt, Hua Kuo-feng—all of whom would fit just as well in corporate boardrooms.
Heroism has taken flight and glory has gone out on its wing. The man who should have ranked alongside Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers—Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon—I daresay is unknown to a majority of today’s youth. One of the reasons, of course, is that Armstrong’s accomplishment was a triumph of the committee—in this case, the legions of scientists, technicians, and mathematicians at NASA. The heroes of the past did the planning, the organizing, and the work themselves. Today’s would-be heroes are only front men. Thus, we look to the great men of the past to feed our need for heroic deeds. And Churchill fits the bill. Anyone wishing to dip into his trough of accomplishments would do well to begin with William Manchester’s book. Ted Morgan’s Young Man In a Hurry unfortunately evinces a smart-aleckyness that seeks to put Churchill in his place at any opportunity. Manchester restores the balance. To mention just two examples, Morgan makes Churchill out to be the supreme cad for the circumstances of his escape from war-prisoner status during the Boer War, in which his two coescapees-to-be were left behind. Manchester demonstrates the unavoidable innocence of the situation. Morgan accepts the negative judgment of Churchill’s peers concerning the ill-fated Dardanelles mission of World War I. Manchester, calling Churchill a military genius, demonstrates the sheer brilliance of the plan and lays the blame squarely on the pusillanimity of the various commanders involved and the unexplainable incipient madness and indecisiveness of Lord Jacky Fisher.
Churchill’s world view may very well, as Manchester implies, have been steeped in visions of the Victorian pax Britannia, but because of that, he was able to mold that spirit into national purpose in the war against Hitler. It may be true that contemporary Western analysis, self-doubt, and self-questioning have robbed us of the ability to trust heroes. But as long as there is a younger generation, some of whom will read of Churchill’s exploits, somewhere the process of emulation might begin and a new generation of heroes be forged. That won’t solve all of our problems, but at least it will give us something to rally around besides word processors, kiss-and-tell talk shows, and faceless statesmen who lull us to sleep.