The Boneless Wonder…
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.
Archive for November, 2009
The Boneless Wonder…
A Class Act, A True Citizen
At a time when coarseness and disrespect seems to be the norm in our civic and political dialogue, Ed Stimpson was from an older and better school. He was a gentlemen first and an involved citizen always.
Ed died on Wednesday after a tough, courageous battle with lung cancer. The unfairness of his death at 75 made all the more hard to take by the fact that the lanky aviation expert was never a smoker. Life treats the good guys just as roughly as the rest of us.
[After posting this Friday, I came across a fine tribute to Ed from an old friend in Washington State.]
The Associated Press described Ed as an “aviation advocate” and he was that for certain. He was the first president of the General Aviation Manufactures Association and was appointed by President Bill Clinton, with the rank of ambassador, to represent the United States on the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization. That group, based in Montreal, makes the rules for aviation world-wide. George W. Bush kept Ed on in the position and he served until 2004. He was recognized internationally for his leadership and he and his equally civic-minded partner, Dorothy, made quite the pair. It is hard to imagine another couple so engaged and so willing to play a role in making their town, their state and their world a better place.
Stimpson received the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in 1998 for his public service contributions to aviation, an honor he shared with Charles A. Lindbergh, World War II pilot Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle and Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong. Fast company. To know Ed was to understand how at home he was in such company.
The National Business Aviation Associated called him an industry icon. Aviation Week said the “tall, quiet, elegant and effective” Stimpson was one of the industry’s most respected voices in Washington, D.C.
I first met Ed and Dottie Stimpson 20 years ago when they arrived in Boise – Ed was working for the old Morrison-Knudsen Corp. – and together they immediately became involved leaders in civic and political life. Dottie almost singlehandlely created the thriving City Club of Boise and the couple has been recognized for their many contributions to a civil society and for creating opportunities for young people. Countless political candidates and even a budding environmental writer, then-Senator Al Gore, benefited from the elegant receptions held over the years in the Stimpson home.
My wife, Pat, and I also benefited on several occasions from Ed’s ability to grill a mean lamb chop, keep the glasses full and the conversation rolling. No visit with Ed and Dottie was ever complete without updates on the latest books, the next trip or the most recent campaign. Like everyone who knew him, I’ll miss Ed for many, many reasons. We should all hope to leave such a legacy: gentleman, elegant, effective, a completely decent man who made a real difference.
Yeats’ famous quote seems particularly appropriate: “Think where man’s glory begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends…”
Ed Stimpson was simply one of the good guys.
President Lincoln’s Proclamation
Secretary of State William Seward drafted Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 establishing the last Thursday of November as a national day of thanksgiving and praise “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Seward’s prose was not nearly as poetic as Lincoln’s, but the fact that the president and his chief advisers could look to the Almighty and give thanks in the middle of an awful civil war is most assuredly a testament to their ultimate faith in the grand experiment called The United States of America.
The full Lincoln proclamation is here.
A happy and blessed Thanksgiving. And, thanks for visiting The Johnson Post.
Leave it to the Basques…
Been wondering if there is any good news in the world? Wonder no more.
Just in time for the Thanksgiving dinner comes new evidence – from the Basque region of Spain – that alcohol, wine, beer, whatever, in moderate daily amounts is good for the heart.
As the Independent reported: “The results showed that those who drank a little – a glass of wine or a bottle of beer every other day – had a 35 per cent lower risk of a heart attack than those who never drank. Moderate drinkers, consuming up to a couple of glasses of wine a day or a couple of pints of ordinary bitter, had a 54 per cent lower risk.”
As anyone knows who has traveled in the Basque region straddling the Spanish and French border along the Pyrenees, the Basques are great cooks and informed imbibers. The hospitality is legendary.
British scientists, of course, discounted the study, but what do they know. A glass of good red wine and a few tasty tapas in a bar in San Sebastian or Bilbao may just be one of the most civilized and stress reducing activities I can think of. Talk about good for the heart.
Toast the Basques. They know how to live. I personally think the study is brilliant.
When Politicians Overrule Their Generals
News today that President Obama is set to announce his Afghanistan strategy next week. He certainly has been getting a lot of advice and he is reportedly irate over the leaks.
The debate over Obama’s deliberation has been fascinating and strikes me in the main as being almost totally lacking in historical context. The president’s critics have suggested he should just adopt the recommendations of his generals and be done with it. Former Vice President Cheney persists in criticizing the president for “dithering” over the decision and many members of Congress argue that he should take the advice of the “generals on the ground.”
These critics have either not read our history or have chosen to ignore what has happened many times in the past. So, a little history and perspective on presidential decisions about war.
Obama’s critics should know that presidents decide strategy, informed, of course, by military and other advice, but the buck stops – and should – at the president’s desk. Sometimes presidents have even said “no” to their generals and it has been a good thing. I have no idea what the president will decide in Afghanistan, but history, all the way back to Commander-in-Chief Abraham Lincoln, tells us that political leaders questioning, probing and even overruling their military advisers is the American way.
George C. Marshall (left), one of the country’s greatest military and political leaders, was Franklin Roosevelt’s chief military advisor during World War II. He knew something about being overruled by a civilian.
FDR Overruled His Generals, Truman and Kennedy, too, and Lincoln Should Have
In the early stages of U.S. involvement in World War II, the American high command lead by Chief of Staff Marshall pressed hard for an early invasion of Europe to be accomplished by Allied landings on the French coast. The British, unlike the Americans, having experienced the full force of German military might and having by 1942 been expelled from the continent three times – Dunkirk, Norway and Greece – resisted an invasion in 1942 or even 1943.
Winston Churchill warned the Americans that a military disaster on the French coast was the “only way in which we could possibly lose this war.” The British advocated a less risky, but more time consuming strategy that included as a first step an Allied invasion of North Africa.
Still, Marshall and others, including Dwight Eisenhower, pushed Franklin Roosevelt to adopt a plan to invade France as soon as possible. The military high command considered North Africa a sideshow. Roosevelt “dithered” over a decision much to the dismay of Eisenhower who argued “we’ve got to go to Europe and fight.”
As Rick Atkinson masterfully recounts in his Pulitzer Prize winning book “An Army at Dawn,” FDR summoned his lieutenants to the White House at 8:30 in the evening of July 30, 1942. Roosevelt announced, as commander-in-chief, that he had made his strategic decision and it was final. The United States would adopt the British strategy and invade North Africa.
As Atkinson has written: “The president made the most profound American strategic decision of the European war in direct contravention of his generals and admirals. He had cast his lot with the British rather than his countrymen.”
British historian Andrew Roberts details in his book “Masters and Commanders,” that all of FDR’s top advisors “Marshall, [Secretary of War Henry] Stimson, Eisenhower, [Secretary of State Cordell] Hull and [Marshall’s chief deputy General Thomas] Handy…preferred the ‘Ulysses S. Grant’ view” that fighting the Nazis “should be done with a full frontal assault on Germany via France as early as possible.”
FDR considered those views and rejected them in favor of Churchill’s and the British high command’s “soft underbelly of Europe” strategy that would eventually involve invasions of Sicily and Italy before the invasion of France. History has vindicated that decision. Most historians now agree that an invasion of France much earlier than 1944 would have risked a military disaster.
Roosevelt must have been thankful to not have to put up with Dick Cheney-type criticism while he made his commander-in-chief decision. All of his deliberations were conducted in strict secrecy and in 1942 military and civilian advisers did not leak. When all the advice was weighed and sifted, FDR had the confidence and courage to overrule his military advisers.
Other presidents have done the same.
During the Korean War, Harry Truman overruled and eventually fired Douglas MacArthur for the general’s insubordination in questioning Truman’s strategy of not carrying the war directly on to Chinese territory.
John Kennedy rejected the advice of his generals to attack Soviet missile sites in Cuba during that crisis and opted instead to negotiate back from the brink of nuclear war.
Perhaps our greatest president – and greatest military strategist in the White House – Abraham Lincoln, experimented with general after general until finding one he could trust. In hindsight, Lincoln gave too much deference early in the Civil War to the views of his generals, particularly the disastrous George McClellan.
When McClellan hatched his ill-considered plan to capture Richmond by moving the Union Army up the Yorktown peninsula in 1862, Lincoln knew that McClellan was pursuing the wrong objective. His real aim should have been to engage and destroy the Confederate Army, but Lincoln, still an unsure commander-in-chief, reluctantly gave into McClellan’s strategy. The outcome was a series of bloody Union defeats and eventual retreat. Lincoln should have overruled his general, but he did gain confidence in his own judgment and worked hard to avoid future mistakes.
Lyndon Johnson also did not overrule his advisers. One wonders how history would be different had LBJ trusted his instincts and resisted the military and political pressure he felt to escalate the Vietnam conflict.
Johnson was captured on tape worrying out loud about his Vietnam decision: “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw.”
Obama’s decision about Afghanistan, just like George W. Bush’s decision to go into Iraq or LBJ’s into Vietnam, will determine the future direction of his presidency. Of course, Obama must – as FDR, Truman and JFK did, consider the full and frank views of his military advisers. They are the experts and their views deserve great deference. However, our history shows that the generals aren’t always right.
As another president famously said, Obama is the decider. We don’t remember that Generals Marshall and Eisenhower were wrong about North Africa, we do remember that Lyndon Johnson’s presidency died along with tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese in Southeast Asia.
Such decisions are how young presidents become old men.
The Greatest Poet…
For me the answer is easy – W.B. Yeats.
In December 1923, nearly 86 years ago, Yeats won the Nobel Prize for literature and made much of the fact that the recognition came shortly after Ireland had gained independence. His recognition, Yeats contended, was an acknowledgement of the quality of Irish literature. Perhaps, but Yeats was an immense talent. In fact, his greatest work – lyrical, beautiful poetry – came after he received the big prize that had been awarded largely for his work as a playwright.
One of my favorites poems is called The Choice:
The intellect of man is forced to choose Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.
I also like Yeats because he was a man of the world, indeed he served in the Irish Senate where he became a major voice celebrating Irish culture.
Pour a little Irish whiskey on a cold November night and open Yeats’ collected works. You’ll find some magic.