Guest Column (12/3/09)

Sometimes I wonder

Dec. 3, 2009

By Edwin Cooney

How many heroes have you had in your life? My numerous heroes can be categorized in approximately three interest areas: historic/political, sports/entertainment and personal.

Very few men in history mean more to me than Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill — and Nov. 30, marked his 135th birthday.

Sure, he’s been gone since Sunday, Jan. 24, 1965 (almost 45 years now), but I occasionally wonder: With the world the way it is today and Winston being Winston, would he still be one of my heroes? The fact that I even hesitate over this question disturbs my heart and troubles my mind. (Okay! Maybe it’s even the other way around!)

Winnie was imperfect, even for his time. He’d drink wine at breakfast if he so chose. His drinking throughout the day and into the night was a combination of wine, whiskey and champagne. (I don’t know that he ever drank tea!) He was overweight, didn’t exercise and smoked cigars like the proverbial chimney. Not even his magnificent voice was flawless; he lisped all his life and had a slight stutter. He could be cruelly sarcastic when it suited him. My favorite of a whole slew of Churchillian observations is what he had to say about Sir Stafford Cripps. Sir Stafford (Prime Minister Churchill’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union) was handsome, always dressed to “the nines,” capable and erudite. Observed Winston, “There but for the grace of God, goes God.”

A lifelong militarist and imperialist, Mr. Churchill nevertheless was no reactionary. Although he both supported and reported on British adventurism in the 1890s and early 1900s in Africa and Asia, Churchill could be severe with British politicians who blatantly ignored what he saw as the legitimate rights of British subjects. Even more, he didn’t see his own personal and political outlook as more patriotic than the outlook of his political opponents.

While it’s certainly true that the only realistic path Churchill could take when forming a government in May 1940 was by a coalition of the leadership with Labor and Liberals along with Conservatives, he was perfectly willing to do so. He never doubted Liberal or Labor patriotism because, after all, Conservatives had been as unrealistic about Hitler as everybody else.

Winston Churchill well understood the nature of political parties. According to the 2002 Churchill biography by the late Roy Jenkins, Churchill, while running as a Liberal during a special election in 1909, drew the following distinction between Liberalism and Socialism:

“Socialism seeks to pull down wealth, Liberalism seeks to raise up poverty. Socialism would destroy private interests; Liberalism would preserve private interests in the only way in which they can be safely and justly preserved, namely, by reconciling them with public right. Socialism would kill enterprise; Liberalism would rescue enterprise from the trammels [meaning hindrance or impediment] of privilege and preference.” Winston never ran from the label of politician.

The Churchill mindset was inevitably a military one, but he also possessed a sense of social justice. He was sympathetic to home rule for Ireland. Additionally, he favored national health insurance and social security for the aged. He was leery of unions but understood their value and recognized their legitimacy.

On the surface, it would appear that Winston Churchill would be hand in glove with today’s right wing foreign policy. After all, he hated tyranny and increasingly endorsed conservative economic concepts. Nevertheless, as shown above, he could draw distinctions. Communism was evil, but Churchill never thought for a moment that by defeating Hitler he’d defeat all evil (in contrast to Messrs Limbaugh, Hanity, Beck and Madam Palin, et al). When once asked about Britain’s Cambodian policy, he is said to have observed, “I don’t worry about little countries such as Cambodia and little countries such as Cambodia don’t worry about me.” Oh, how much I hope that this quotation is not apocryphal.

As I see it, the sharp distinction between Churchillian military and political truculence vs. what pours forth from today’s right wing is that Churchill was humble enough, even with his considerable vanity, to acknowledge that his political, socioeconomic and spiritual values possessed no monopoly on respectable legitimacy.

Perhaps the key to the eternal Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill can be found in his prescription for a truly powerful nation’s most healthy outlook on the world:

“In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity; in peace, good will.”

In peace, good will? Hmm! I can live with that. So ought you!


Edwin Cooney is a national political and historical columnist.