Churchill 101

by Derrick G. Jeter

Winston Churchill marshaled words like a general marshals men. He armed them, set them in order, and marched them out for battle. Perhaps no statesman in the history of humanity has reached the heights of eloquence with pen and voice than had Churchill. This is certainly true for the history of the twentieth century, and thus far for the twenty-first as well. Churchill loved words because they echoed long after the voice had been silenced. In an essay he wrote in 1938, Churchill mused:

The greatest tie of all is language. . . . Words are the only things that last for ever. The most tremendous monuments or prodigies of engineering crumble under the hand of Time. The Pyramids moulder, the bridges rust, the canals fill up, grass covers the railway tracks; but words spoken two or three thousand years ago remain with us now, not as mere relics of the past, but with all their pristine vital force. [1]

But Churchill was more than a wordsmith. He was a vital force in his own right—certainly as an orator and historian, but also as a painter and powerbroker. The closest equivalent to a Churchill in America was Theodore Roosevelt. Both men had a lust for life—soldiers, speakers, and statesmen. Passion was the order of the day—every day. Ironically, Churchill and Roosevelt had met once; Roosevelt was unimpressed: “That young Churchill is not a gentleman. He does not rise to this feet when a lady enters the room.” [2]

Like Roosevelt, plenty of ink has been spilt on the life of Churchill. As one biographer put it, “Winston Churchill’s life is better documented than any other in the twentieth century.” [3] The official account of Churchill’s life runs eight volumes. Perhaps the best one-volume biography is Roy Jenkins’ Churchill: A Biography. But weighting in at one thousand pages, tackling this heavyweight is a daunting prospect for most readers. However, for those interested in the life of Churchill there is reason to rejoice. Paul Johnson, an historian just as adept in marshaling the English language as Churchill, has produced his own one-volume biography, weighing in at a puny 180 pages, simply titled, Churchill.

Though Johnson’s book is merely a primer to Churchill’s life, it captures in vivid, crisp, and fluent language the breadth of the man’s accomplishments. Johnson’s Churchill, just like Johnson’s language, is dramatic, zesty, and alway on the move. Besides serving as a wonderful introduction to Churchill’s life, Johnson’s book does what too few biographies accomplish: it truly educates. Some may take offense at this, but I found it refreshing and helpful, especially as I think about placing heros before my children. Johnson opens the first chapter with this paragraph:

Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable. It is a joy to write his life, and to read about it. None holds more lessons, especially for youth: How to use a difficult childhood. How to seize eagerly on all opportunities, physical, moral, and intellectual. How to dare greatly, to reinforce success, and to put the inevitable failures behind you. And how, while pursuing vaulting ambition with energy and relish, to cultivate also friendship, generosity, compassion, and decency. [4]

Johnson ends his biography with five lessons from the great man’s life. “The first lesson is: always aim high. . . . Lesson number two is: there is no substitute for hard work. . . . Third, and in its way most important, Churchill never allowed mistakes, disaster—personal or national—accidents, illnesses, unpopularity, and criticism to get him down. . . . Fourth, Churchill wasted an extraordinarily small amount of his time and emotional energy on the meannesses of life. . . . Finally, the absence of hatred left plenty of room for joy.” [5]

These are lessons worth learning for any age. And Paul Johnson’s Churchill is worth reading, for both young and old. There is plenty of joy on each pages, and in a life well lived.

[1] Winston S. Churchill, “The Union of the English-Speaking People,” May 15, 1938, quoted in Richard Langworth, Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), 262.

[2] Theodore Roosevelt, quoted in Paul Johnson, Churchill (New York: Viking Penguin, 2009), 12.

[3] Johnson, Churchill, 167.

[4] Johnson, Churchill, 3.

[5] Johnson, Churchill, 162–65.