WASHINGTON — The year 2012 is about to expire. It was a blank in my judgment — poof and it is gone. We have the same sorry vacuity in the White House, bereft of a clue as to how to run the government. Just now he is off to Hawaii to loll in the sun, having left town leaving behind only questions as to how to avoid our “fiscal cliff.” Yes, he wants to raise taxes on the two percent, but how do we reduce the deficit and finish off the tax bill? He has headed for the beach — and practically no one remarks on the amateurism of it. The president is a poseur.
Not much more can be said for the rest of the leadership in Washington, in Congress, in the media, strutting down the halls of government. As year chases year, I have come to the conclusion that this whole town is abundant with poseurs or worse. There is a blandness to the Washington-New York City scene that is maddening to anyone familiar with American history, a history filled with great figures.
That is why I am lost in the personae and drama of The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 by William Manchester, deceased, and Paul Reid, very much alive. The story chronicles Churchill waging World War II, alone at first but with enough Americans and other English-speaking people almost from the start to make it a book about great Americans, great English-speaking people, and an assortment of mediocrities, rogues, and heinous dictators to remind readers of how lucky we are to live in lands where the love of freedom keeps us civilized.
Halfway through the 1,182-page tome I encountered the estimable Brian Lamb on C-SPAN the other night interviewing Paul Reid, the unconventional author of Defender of the Realm. Manchester, author of the first two volumes of The Last Lion, got off to an enviable start with this Churchill trilogy but went into physical decline before doing much more with the third volume than elementary research. He did pick his friend Reid to finish off the work, and we can be glad Manchester had an eye for talent. Reid has done Manchester proud.
In his interview Reid serves up a tempting outline of his book — watch it and my guess is you will want to read the book. Reid has made minor mistakes in his laborious work, for instance, calling Winchester College a “university” and saying the Welshman, Aneurin Bevan, was the “administrator” of Britain’s National Health Service. Nonetheless, I shall say it here and not be ashamed. Though Reid is not a professional historian he has rounded out the portraits of Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin more completely than any other writer I have read. Moreover, he does the same with lesser figures, George Marshall, Admiral Ernest King, Anthony Eden, in fact almost the whole cast of characters who lined up with Churchill to fight World War II. And I am not leaving out the idiot Dr. Goebbels and the fumbling Hermann Goering, Hitler’s propagandist and air marshal respectively. Never again will I perceive them in the one-dimensional way they come off in conventional historiography.
How Reid succeeds in this I can only speculate. He has read widely and chosen quotes with an eye for their vividness. Perhaps he was unfettered by a professional historian’s strictures and uses quotes with especial attention for what they will tell readers about, say, Churchill or Roosevelt. It is a gift, a literary gift.
Thus we all know that Roosevelt was a great leader, but he was also petty and could be inexplicably petty, even cruel. At the Tehran conference he insisted on keeping Churchill out of private conferences with Stalin for no apparent reason. Later he was much amused when Stalin, the butcher of Katyn forest, playfully bedeviled Churchill, causing FDR’s friend, Averell Harriman, to recall later that the President “always enjoyed other people’s discomfort…. It never bothered him much when other people were unhappy.” Churchill is portrayed convincingly as tough and even ruthless, especially to his sorely pressed staff. Yet in Cairo, as he waited for an enthusiastic Roosevelt to join him in an outing to the pyramids, he told his daughter Sarah — his “eyes bright with tears” — “I love that man.”
Both men had their fatherly embarrassments. Churchill was indulgent toward his repulsive and drunken son Randolph. He took him to international conferences and sent the unreliable fellow on high-level missions. Not to be out done, Roosevelt took his son Elliott abroad with him, and at Tehran had to sit by while the drunken Elliott gave a toast committing the American army to what would have amounted to atrocities. Elliott meant it as a joke, friendly to Stalin and aimed at Churchill.
It is rare to read a book that portrays one or another of these great men so completely and convincingly. To have so many great figures portrayed so fully in one book is amazing. Go out and buy Defender of the Realm and see if I am not right.
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