Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born on this day in 1874.
The world has not been the same since.
In any one of a half dozen fields – the military, literature, history, painting, lecturing, acting (?) – Churchill could have become an international celebrity, acknowledged for his remarkable talents. Thank goodness he chose politics.
For two years running now, I have had the genuine pleasure of attending the annual Chartwell Society dinner at the elegant Arlington Club in downtown Portland, Oregon. The dinner has been organized for 17 years by a group of Oregon Churchillians who gather to remember the great man’s life and legacy. Of course, true to Churchill’s memory, they also enjoy cocktails – or Winston’s favorite Pol Roger champagne – good roast beef and fine French wine. The whole affair is conducted amid much talk of the man who gave Britain her roar during the awful days of World War II.
Unfortunately, recent changes in Oregon law prevented the standard after dinner cigar at the recent Chartwell Society gala. Winston would not have approved. Generally, he favored a Romeo y Julietta; Cuban, of course and in the size he made famous. One of his cigars, reportedly partially consumed at the Casablanca conference in 1943, was recently valued at 800 pounds.
I had the honor of delivering one of the toasts during the Chartwell Society dinner, a toast to Churchill’s wartime friend Franklin Roosevelt. I believe theirs was the most consequential friendship of the 20th Century.
The Chartwell dinner gets me thinking about the remarkable accomplishments of Churchill and, in fairness, also his rather remarkable failures.
Decidedly on the plus side of his legacy is the fact that he provided the vocabulary and the courage needed for Britain to hang on against the Germans in 1940 and 1941 while the United States remained a largely isolationist nation. He forged a great alliance with Roosevelt that still resonates with us today.
Churchill is also remembered for engineering the disastrous British expedition to the Dardanelles in 1915 that ultimately forced his resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty. Winston was a man of action and ideas. Some of his actions and ideas were great, many others were not. Still, perhaps the greatest lesson of Churchill’s long and fascinating life was his determination to always carry on.
He famously said: “When you are going through Hell, keep on going.” He did.
When Churchill returned to lead the British Navy in 1939 – remember he had been forced to resign from the same post 24 years earlier – he was, at age 65, widely considered the right man at the right time, in fact the only man for the job. He went to his old office in the Admiralty Building and found the same charts and maps that he had left there nearly a quarter century before. To mark his return, a signal was flashed to the fleet – “Winston’s back!” Who says there are no second acts in political life? Churchill had a second, third and fourth life. He always kept on going.
Churchill will be long remembered for his remarkable ability to inspire with the written and spoken word. He was an elegant, earthy, inspirational, funny and profound speaker, and, take note today’s politicos, his remarkable way with words – something he worked very hard to master – was a talent that contributed directly to his political success.
One of my favorite stories involves Churchill’s critique of Labour Party Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, a dour Scotsman who Winston believed was a weak leader. During a parliamentary debate he painted an unforgettable word portrait of MacDonald, who was seated across the floor in the House of Commons:
“I remember when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum’s Circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities, but the exhibit on the program which I most desired to see was the one described as ‘The Boneless Wonder.’ My parents judged that the spectacle would be too demoralizing and revolting for my youthful eyes and I have waited fifty years to see The Boneless Wonder siting on the Treasury Bench.”
You can almost hear the laughter, see the nodding heads and know that the victim of the wit and cutting put down had no possible recourse. What does one say to being called The Boneless Wonder?
One of the greatest resources for all things Churchill is the Churchill Centre which sponsors an annual conference in the United States and vigorously defends the old boy’s reputation. The scholarly analysis of Churchill’s role in two world wars and the post-war world of the 1950’s and 1960’s continues unabated. My guess is that he will be written about as long as the history of the English speaking people is recorded.
Like all great men – and women – Winston Churchill was far from perfect. He was however a remarkable leader at the very moment the world needed him the most. We should remember his birthday every year.