Isaac Chotiner: The Legacy of Churchill





[Isaac Chotiner is the executive editor of The Book.]

Right-wing Churchill worship is a well-known phenomenon. It has been picked apart with a thoroughness to match the study of Churchill himself. Caspar Weinberger—Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of defense—kept a large store of Churchill memorabilia and rarely passed up the opportunity to laud the British hero. Republican presidents from Nixon to George W. Bush have found it useful to summon the great man’s image. At the dawn of the Gulf war, the late Jack Kemp chose to quote Churchill’s diary during a cabinet meeting at which he had been asked to recite a prayer. The substitution must have gone almost unnoticed among politicians who tend to view Churchill as a kind of deity. When Barack Obama, soon after taking office, returned a bust of the former prime minister (first installed in the Oval Office by his immediate predecessor, naturally) to London, the conservative blogosphere almost lost its mind....

This rather sickly Anglophilia is distinct from the ways in which many British right-wingers approach Churchill. A not insignificant number of Tory intellectuals and historians admire Churchill for exactly the wrong reasons. For his warm embrace of imperialism, his obstinacy on Indian independence, his ugly stance on Ireland, and his contempt for the labor movement, he is to this day admired by unsavory figures on the British right. But Churchill was also responsible for the forfeiture of the British Empire and the rise of the Pax Americana—or so this thinking goes—and the resulting bitterness tends to outweigh all other considerations....

It is for this reason—and only for this reason—that Paul Johnson’s new biography of Churchill is worth a look. Johnson is a famous intellectual figure and crank in Britain, an editor and author who has moved steadily to the right over the past half century. His charm is an acquired taste. For example: “I don't fall for the hype about Nelson Mandela, under whose timid rule South Africa went straight for the rocks. The only man to emerge with credibility from the total devastation of recent years is poor old Ian Smith of Rhodesia, who has been proved right on every point and whose popularity with the Africans rises all the time.” This nicely captures Johnson’s grumpy reactionary tendencies, which extend to almost every area of his historical analysis....

At a time when Barack Obama seems uninterested in taking Gordon Brown’s phone calls, it is easy to sneer at the “special relationship” and the whole style of history that Johnson both writes and personifies. But the Anglo-American relationship is special. Paul Johnson has written a mediocre and boring book that should be ignored by people who want to get a real sense of Churchill the man, and of the complexities of twentieth-century history more generally; but the object of Johnson’s admiration is the right one. And the idea of not having any books like this—the idea that the special relationship is historically obsolete, and that Winston Churchill may no longer be generally revered—is a rather melancholy thought. Fareed Zakaria recently praised Obama as “the anti-Churchill.” What sort of praise is that, not least in these days of war against a different sort of totalitarian enemy? The problem today is not that too few public figures get labeled “Churchillian;” the problem is that they are not Churchillian enough.



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