Special Report

Obama’s Churchill Dilemma

Hitler's suicide, victory in World War II could not keep legendary British leader from political defeat.

By 5.3.11

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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.

Why?

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."

Days before the voting, Churchill and his Labour Party opponent Attlee, up until now a member of the wartime Coalition Cabinet, were driven in separate jeeps past a line of cheering British troops gathered for a British Victory Parade in Berlin. Said Churchill's disturbed Private Secretary of the reception each man received from Britain's fighting men:

"It struck me… as decidedly odd that Winston Churchill, the great war leader but for whom we should never have been in Berlin at all, got a markedly less vociferous cheer than Mr. Attlee, who -- however great his contribution in the Coalition -- had not hitherto made any marked personal impact upon the fighting forces."

As the election came down to its closing days, Churchill was in Yalta for the key summit with Harry Truman and Josef Stalin. On one evening, dining alone with his friend Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Churchill talked gamely of his plans for the country when he was re-elected. Mountbatten, at the time the Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Command, had just arrived from India where he had spent considerable time with British troops -- all of whom had already cast their votes by military ballot. Said the man who would soon be appointed by Attlee as the last British Viceroy of India:

"It was a mournful and eerie feeling to sit there talking plans with a man who seemed so confident that they would come off, and I felt equally confident that he would be out of office within 24 hours."

The astute Mountbatten was right.

That night, Churchill would later write, he woke up with what he called "a sharp stab of almost physical pain" when a "subconscious conviction that we were beaten broke forth and dominated my mind." At ten the next morning, a military aide received the first returns and took them to the Great Man, who was indulging in one of his usual favorites, a prolonged hot bath. Said the aide, a Captain Pim: "The Prime Minister was in his bath and certainly appeared surprised, if not shocked."

Later, when the news was certain, his wife Clementine famously suggested that perhaps his election loss was a "blessing in disguise." Growled Churchill: "At the moment, it seems quite effectively disguised."

No, the point here is not that Barack Obama has suddenly morphed into Winston Churchill. As if! In fact, to his credit, he stuck with the Bush policy on getting Osama bin Laden and perhaps even ratcheted it up here and there, as doubtless his more left-wing fans are suddenly realizing, to their discomfort.

The point is quite simple and factual.

Winning wars and killing the lead bad guy -- and World War II and Adolf Hitler were without doubt then and now the biggest war and the worst bad guy -- does not an election victory make. Voters -- in Britain in 1945 and in America in 2012 -- are more than capable of sifting the differences between a leader who has done one thing that pleases in the past, while not being up to snuff on something else now seen as more critical.

There is, of course, a much more recent version of the Bush's stunning 90%-plus popularity in the wake of his quick victory in the first Gulf War. The war began on August 2, 1990 with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, which Bush firmly said "would not stand." Bush did, by all accounts, a fabulous job of marshaling an alliance to oust Saddam and by February 28, 1991 the war was over. It made a hero out of Bush along with his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Colin Powell, and the theater commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf.

But as with British voters in 1945, American voters in 1992 were exuberant -- while immediately focusing on the Next Big Thing. In Bush's case, that was the economy. He was in fact so unexpectedly vulnerable even with Republicans that conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan managed to garner almost 38% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. Bush won, with 53% of the vote, but the mere fact Buchanan had done so well against a once presumed-unbeatable war-winning president sent shock waves through the political establishment. Before long, Ross Perot made his splash -- and by November, an unknown Governor Bill Clinton from Arkansas was president-elect.

All of which is to say that President Obama has done the right thing by staying with this problem and finally nailing Osama bin Laden. The disposal at sea was a particularly excellent touch.

But history shows -- vividly -- that as exuberant as Americans are in fact this week, the triumph of getting the lead evil behind al Qaeda is going to in fact wear off quickly.

Americans will be moving on, as they always do. Demanding to know: "what have you done for me lately?"

And for that, there is an emerging answer.

Last week in this space there was a look at the cost of a gallon of skim milk in one grocery store in Central Pennsylvania.

The inflation -- or "Obamaflation" as it was pegged, caused as it is by Obamanomics -- was recorded this way with respect to the rising cost of that gallon of milk:

January 11, 2011: $3.20
February 28, 2011: $3.24
March 6, 2011: $3.34
April 23, 2011: $3.48

News from the front of the inflation wars just in. A trip this morning for the usual gallon of skim at the usual store 9 days later found this:

May 2, 2011: $3.55

Which is to say, the price of a gallon of skim has rocketed up yet another 7 cents in a mere 9 days.

Osama bin Laden is now dead.

But Obamaflation lives. It not only lives, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein monster, it is beginning its inevitable pillaging of the daily lives of Americans. And the next election is a full year and a half away, more than plenty of time for a voter's crisply short memory to move on from the dramatic firefight in a Pakistan villa.

And it's safe to say, no matter how hard Obama's liberal allies whistle past the political graveyard that holds the 1945 defeat of Winston Churchill and the 1992 defeat of George H.W. Bush, they will not be able to outrun the political ghost that is:

The Churchill Dilemma.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.