In what must be the drollest item of the week, or longer (there haven’t been many droll items lately), Hillary recently told the Guardian that she wasn’t comparing herself to Churchill, after having just compared herself to Churchill.
“I’m sure they said that about Churchill between the wars, didn’t they?” she flashes back sharply, a fraction too quickly for the line to sound spontaneous. “I mean, I’m not comparing myself, but I’m just saying people said that, but he was right about Hitler, and a lot of people in England were wrong. And Churchill was a pain. He kept popping up all the time.”
As it happens, following the strong recommendation of some good friends I’ve just been reading Boris Johnson’s magnificent The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, and I can assure you Hillary is no Churchill. But it is true that many of the things that were said about Churchill “between the wars,” and even for a while after he became Prime Minister, do have a familiar, contemporary ring to them. Here are a few examples:
- “To lead his country … Churchill had to command not just [his partisan opponents] but hundreds of [those in his own party] who had been conditioned to think of him as an opportunist, a turncoat, a blowhard, an egotist, a rotter, a bounder….” (31-32).
- A 1940 letter from the wife of a Tory member of Parliament “sums up the mood of fastidious horror”: “WC they regard with complete distrust, as you know, and they hate his boasting broadcasts. WC really is … bloated with ego and over-feeding, … treachery running through his veins, punctuated by heroics and hot air.” (32)
- “In the view of these respectable folk the Churchillians were nothing but ‘gangsters.’”(32)
- A Tory critic of Churchill on his ascent in 1940: “The good clean tradition of English politics has been sold to the greatest adventurer of modern political history. Surrendering to Winston and his rabble was a disaster….” (33)
- Boris Johnson comments: “There is a fascinating malevolence about some of this language…. How to explain this hysterical rejection….? From the strictly Tory point of view I am afraid it is all too understandable. In the course of his forty-year parliamentary career Churchill had shown a complete contempt for any notion of political fidelity, let alone loyalty to the Tory Party.”” (34-5)
- “His enemies detected in him a titanic egotism, a desire to find whatever wave or wavelet he could, and surf it long after it had dissolved into spume on the beach.” (37)
- “We have to acknowledge that this reputation didn’t just come from nowhere. There was a reason he was thought to be arrogant and ‘unsound,’ and that was because to a certain extent it was true: he did behave with a death-defying self-belief, and go farther out on a limb than anyone else might have thought wise.” (38)
- Even Lord Beaverbrook, one of Churchill’s supporters, observed in 1936 that Churchill “lacks the proper note of sincerity for which the country listens.” (89)
- Evelyn Waugh in 1965: Churchill “was a ‘radio personality’ who had outlived his prime.” (91)
- “He didn’t always tell the exact truth.” (92)
- “What is worse than being a spoilt and irascible bully? How about the general charge that he didn’t really have any real friends — only people he ‘used’ for his own advancement.”
Johnson, of course, acquits his hero of all these charges, and more, and I highly recommend his book.
Perhaps we should give Hillary credit for being half right. As the above examples indicate, what was widely said about Churchill as he rose to power, and even for a while after he achieved it, is indeed very similar to what was widely said about one of the two 2016 presidential candidates … but Hillary is not the one.
Finally, even though I am not now nor have I ever been a Never-Trumper, perhaps I should close by saying no, I am not comparing Trump to Churchill. But I do think the striking similarities between large elements of the “fascinating malevolence” and “hysterical rejection” they both provoked, especially by members of their own party, are interesting.