Liberal commentator Chris Matthews was the emcee at the closing banquet of the annual International Churchill Conference last weekend in Washington, D.C. Citing the dedication earlier in the week of a Winston Churchill bust in the U.S. Capitol, with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders presiding, Matthews hailed Churchill as a rare unifying figure in partisan Washington. Of course, Matthews being Matthews, he still inserted a gibe against the Tea Party.
Afterwards, Matthews’ loud voice could be heard in the hotel men’s room, where a dinner participant had confronted him about his Tea Party comment. Attentive men in tuxedos circled around to hear the confrontation in front of the lavatory sinks as Matthews defended himself. So indirectly, maybe Churchill still provokes controversy.
The new bust at the U.S. Capitol notwithstanding, a Churchill bust on loan from the British to President George W. Bush was returned by the incoming Obama Administration in 2009. Some surmised that Obama disliked Churchill because, as a part Kenyan, he resented Churchill the imperialist. But at the Churchill Conference, an official of the Churchill Centre, the event’s host, emphasized that another Churchill bust remains in the White House in the private quarters, which Obama had shown a visiting Prime Minister David Cameron. The Churchill Centre was the donor of the U.S. Capitol bust.
Following Matthews at the closing banquet, Julie Nixon Eisenhower introduced her husband David, grandson of Churchill’s war-time colleague Dwight Eisenhower, who offered a soldierly overview of Churchill’s leadership. All the speakers across two days sang praises for Britain’s WWII leader, with some admissions of Churchill’s occasional faults. Listening were several hundred Churchill devotees, including bow-tied students of conservative Kings College in New York, who are part of a Churchill House.
The crowd was mostly conservative, including American Spectator editor and founder R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. Churchill’s great grandson Randolph, whose late father was a Conservative Party member of Parliament, was present. But as one self-identified liberal audience member quietly explained, liberal admirers of Churchill were also present, beyond just Matthews. Distinguished historian Jean Edward Smith, biographer of FDR and Eisenhower, told one participant that his upcoming biography of George W. Bush will not be favorable, which was no shock. Some audience conservatives may have been surprised when one speaker announced that Churchill, who knew every U.S. president from William McKinley (whom he liked) through Lyndon Johnson, did not privately support any Republican presidential candidate after 1912. Even the election of his war-time friend Eisenhower in 1952 had prompted him privately to comment worriedly: “This means war.”
Churchill had admired Teddy Roosevelt, who did not reciprocate, believing Churchill not a gentleman. Alice Roosevelt Longworth observed that her father and Churchill were too much alike. Republican presidents of the 1920s who pressed Britain on war debts, naturally Churchill did not appreciate. Although he appreciated Woodrow Wilson’s eventual entry into World War I, Churchill later noted Wilson’s inability to build consensus at home with Republicans even while touting good will abroad. Churchill pronounced of FDR, his closest U.S. presidential partner: “the greatest man I’ve ever known.” After disagreeing by cable over whether to capture Berlin, Churchill relented, wiring to FDR a Latin saying: “The wrath of lovers heats up their love.” And he hailed Harry Truman for having “saved Western civilization” through Korean intervention, NATO creation, aid to Turkey and Greece, and the Berlin Airlift.
The whole of Churchill’s life was one giant monologue, a speaker at the conference observed. His power was through his oratory, to global audiences, or one on one. Churchill was slightly and unusually intimidated by General George Marshall, who was stoically immune to his avalanche of words. Despite their differences over war policy, Churchill hailed him as the “noblest Roman of them all.” When Marshall attended Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, the audience rose with silent respect.
Despite his powerful oratory and brilliance, Churchill was distrusted throughout his political life. He never won a national majority in any election as party leader. And when he was appointed prime minster in 1940, the whole British establishment was largely against him. Churchill prevailed by “talking up” himself and the nation, which was able to “punch above its weight” thanks to his mastery of a dire situation. Paul Reid, who recently finished the Churchill biographic trilogy that William Manchester began, told the conference that Churchill overstated the threat of German invasion after France’s defeat to motivate allies but never believed the Germans logistically could cross the English Channel.
The outstanding British historian Andrew Roberts said that Churchill was religiously agnostic, having lost what Christian faith he had while a young man in the army, becoming a sort of deist. Perhaps, but Churchill often enjoyed the pageantry of church attendance, famously and enjoyably attending church with FDR in America on several occasions, and organizing the joint worship service on HMS Prince of Wales with FDR at the Atlantic Charter conference off the coast of Newfoundland. Churchill personally selected the hymns. He later stipulated that his own funeral include the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In 1954 Churchill summoned young evangelist Billy Graham to a private meeting, keeping him longer than expected while the Duke of Windsor waited outside.
Whatever his faith, Churchill was indomitable, though he oddly despaired in his final years: “I have achieved nothing.” His own central role in saving Western civilization at least momentarily escaped his realization. “He played a weak hand brilliantly,” pronounced one British historian at the conference, suggesting future American presidents may need similar shrewdness if America loses global influence.
Carved beneath Churchill’s bust now in the U.S. Capitol are the words: “Statesman, Defender of Freedom, Honorary U.S. Citizen.” They seem sufficient.