Wednesday, March 4, 2009
I was recently watching the Biography Channel (I love that shit) and I now have a new name to add to my list of dead guys I’d like to party with. It’s British Prime Minister and all around great guy, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill. Those who read this blog on a regular basis know that I’m not normally a fan of anything or anyone European, but in this case I must make an exception. For Winston Churchill was one impressive dude, so impressive in fact that he was the first person to be made an Honorary Citizen of the United States in 1963 (A non-United States citizen of exceptional merit may be declared an Honorary Citizen of the United States by an Act of Congress, or by a proclamation issued by the President pursuant to authorization granted by Congress. As of 2009, just six people have had this honor bestowed upon them and only three of them, including Winston Churchill, were so honored during their lifetime). So what was it about Winston Churchill that made him so great? Where to begin?
Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill started his career in the military and became a decorated officer in the British Army. During his army career, Churchill saw combat in India, the Sudan, and the Second Boer War. He gained fame and notoriety as a war correspondent and through contemporary books he wrote describing the campaigns. Churchill’s abilities as a writer were so prolific that he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 for his numerous published works, especially his six-edition set The Second World War. Churchill also served briefly in the British Army on the Western Front in World War I, commanding the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers.
Although Churchill had a distinguished military career where he really made a name for himself was in politics, where he held various political and cabinet positions over an almost 50 year span. He became most famous after the outbreak of World War II when he became Prime Minister following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain on May 10, 1940. Churchill took over England at a very crucial point in time and proceeded to lead Britain to victory against the Axis powers. Churchill was always noted for his speeches, which became a great inspiration to the British people and embattled Allied forces. He would say things like: “Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival,” and “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” As popular as Winston Churchill was following the Allied victory in World War II he inexplicably failed to gain reelection in 1945. Many reasons for this defeat have been speculated, key among them being that a desire for post-war reform was widespread amongst the population and that the man who had led Britain in war was not seen as the man to lead the nation in peace. If you ask me he was defeated because of his brash personality and because the people who opposed him were complete idiots. Following his defeat Churchill became Leader of the Opposition until 1951, when he again became Prime Minister (the idiots realized what a mistake they’d made six years earlier). Churchill finally retired from politics in 1955.
In addition to his military and political successes, Churchill was also an accomplished artist and historian. He took great pleasure in painting and found a haven in art to overcome the spells of depression - or as he termed it, the "Black Dog" which he suffered throughout his life. He is best known for his impressionist scenes of landscape, many of which were painted while on holiday in the South of France or Morocco. He continued this hobby throughout his life and painted dozens of paintings, many of which are on show in the studio at Chartwell. Churchill was also a prolific writer of books, writing a novel, two biographies, three volumes of memoirs, and several histories in addition to his many newspaper articles. As noted above he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values". In his books and articles he wrote things like “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities... because it is the quality which guarantees all others," and “All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope."
Aside from being a noted statesman and orator, a decorated officer in the army, a respected historian, a Nobel Prize-winning writer, an accomplished artist, and arguably the greatest Prime Minister in the history of Great Britain, Winston Churchill was also an unapologetic booze hound and a cold blooded smack talker. Most historians reject the commonly held belief that Churchill was an abuser of alcohol. Perhaps "abuser" is too broad a word. Professor Warren Kimball of Rutgers, editor of the WSC-FDR correspondence and several books on the two leaders, maintains that Churchill was not an alcoholic -"no alcoholic could drink that much!"- but "alcohol dependent," citing his occasional glass of hock with his breakfast and his heavy imbibing at mealtimes. Alcoholic or alcohol dependent - call it whatever you want – it’s pretty clear that alcohol in no way affected Churchill’s ability to achieve greatness in whatever he undertook. Quite the contrary. But still there were some people who saw Churchill’s penchant to put away copious amounts of alcohol as disdainful. On one occasion a woman named Bessie Braddock scolded Churchill and called him a drunk. To this woman he replied “I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.” God - I love this man. Churchill once famously quipped "I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me." I feel exactly the same way.
Another reason I feel connected to Winston Churchill is because we share an outspoken hatred for socialism or anything else resembling communism. Churchill once said: “Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery,” and “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” I couldn't have put it better myself. He also said: “Some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Not enough people see it as a healthy horse, pulling a sturdy wagon.” Our current administration would be wise to heed his words. Churchill also despised Adolph Hitler, as does anyone with an ounce of intelligence, integrity, or morality. He once famously proclaimed: “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Churchill was resolute in his beliefs but he also had a sense of humor about politics. He once joked: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” And here we are a half century later – I guess some things never change. He also said: “A politician needs the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen.” So true – if you think about it, it’s really pretty pointless for any politician to pretend to have all the answers because in the end sometimes shit just happens.
What I like best about Winston Churchill though cannot be summarized by his many outstanding accomplishments, his edgy wit, or the fact that he liked to booze and talk smack (although this does make me wish I could party with him). No, what I like best about Winston Churchill is the fact that he never pretended to be somebody he wasn’t, he never strived to do what was popular, and he led by his convictions alone. He’s a throwback to the days when politicians weren’t celebrities, pandering to the special interest groups that got them elected in the first place, leading with the singular goal of reelection so they can continue to reap the benefits of their celebrity. He epitomized everything that was good about politics in the middle of the twentieth century and everything that’s missing from politics today.
As Wall Street continues to collapse, the line between the public and private sectors continues to become more and more blurred, and American families continue to lose their savings, jobs, and homes, it seems appropriate to end this post with a few more words of inspiration from the late, great Winston Churchill:
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
“Sure I am of this, that you have only to endure to conquer.”
Rest in peace, Mr. Churchill. The World misses you.