Hitler’s suicide, victory in World War II could not keep legendary British leader from political defeat.
Osama bin Laden is dead.
This is a great moment, one long sought by a nation that suffered such incredible savagery at the hands of this man.
President Obama and his team deserve a major high five. Not to mention President Bush and his team and all those Navy Seals and military and intelligence officials who patiently worked to bring this moment about.
As might be expected, it didn’t take long for the media to start suggesting how the killing of bin Laden would help re-elect Obama in 2012, as with this Reuters story.
There was no mention of what might be called the Churchill Dilemma.
The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton this weekend surfaced an image that, in the wake of Osama’s death, becomes more than just a piece of wedding trivia. That image is an important historical moment — now so long gone few remember it — that should serve as a cautionary tale for the Obama campaign and the campaigns of all those prospective GOP candidates warming up to run against him. Cautionary because the photo captures not only an important moment of World War II history but an equally important political moment.
When Kate Middleton stood on the balcony of Buckingham Palace for those kisses with her new royal husband Friday afternoon, waving to a crowd of tens and tens of thousands jamming the streets below, it was noted that she was the only commoner to have stood on that balcony since Winston Churchill stood precisely in that spot almost exactly 66 years earlier.
On May 8, 1945, after making a radio broadcast announcing the end of the European half of World War II — the part of the war, obviously, that most impacted the people of Britain — Churchill was whisked to Buckingham Palace.
As was true this weekend, the jubilant crowd massing in 1945 was delirious with cheers and applause. The object of their devotion was not a pretty 29-year old bride and her handsome prince, although the popular royal family of the day — including the young Princess who is today’s Queen Elizabeth — was standing on that balcony along with Churchill as well. What was driving the excited crowd wild was the presence of the 71-year-old, unfathomably popular, legendary British Prime Minister. This was the man who had famously spent almost a decade fruitlessly warning of the horror headed England’s way, the man finally made head of government as war raged. This was the man who, warnings belatedly heeded, was given the reins just two months before bombs literally were dropping on London in a reign of savage murder that would take the lives of 20,000 Londoners and another 20,000 across Britain itself.
Standing on the Palace balcony gazing out at the emotional scene Churchill would later recall the announcement of the Nazi surrender. It was an announcement that followed the suicide of Adolf Hitler by mere weeks, and served as what Churchill called “the signal for the greatest outburst of joy in the history of mankind.” The crowds stretching out below Churchill that triumphant May day were every bit as rowdy as those seen for William and Kate the other day if not more so. They were, Churchill said, “tumultuous” in their rejoicing.
Yet a little over two months later, on July 26, the British people stunned the world by rejecting Churchill’s bid for re-election. Winston Churchill, one of the first great wartime leaders to emerge in the successful war to defeat Adolf Hitler and a genuinely beloved hero, lost. Worse, for Churchill fans, he lost to one of history’s more colorless Labour Party leaders, Clement Attlee.
Because with the war over, with the hated Hitler dead and Allied troops occupying Germany, in a blink the British people moved on. Effectively thanking Churchill with that massive rally outside Buckingham Palace — then brusquely asking, in effect: “What have you done for me lately?”
Churchill, unhappy at having to contest for his job so quickly, especially before the Japanese had surrendered, suddenly found himself being asked about his ideas for housing (more than a million homes in London alone were destroyed or damaged in the Battle of Britain), social insurance, health care, labor policy, economic policy and more. In other words, not only were the British people done with the war, they wanted to know about something else altogether — Churchill’s domestic policies.
The dichotomy between the reality of the substantive debate and Churchill’s personal popularity was striking. As he set out on his election tours he was mobbed by crowds that cheered him on, wrote biographer Martin Gilbert. In one instance, spying Churchill’s passing car as he was being driven past a crowd exiting a greyhound race his car was slowed and stopped by an exuberantly enthusiastic and presumably supportive mob of happy people. Says Gilbert: “It was if the leader of the nation during the war years, and the leader of a party deep in an election struggle, were two quite separate men.”