Jacqueline Kennedy offered a touching and durable vision of the White House ceremony on April 9, 1963, when President Kennedy bestowed honorary U.S. citizenship on Sir Winston Churchill.
Aged 88, Churchill was represented by his son, Randolph, who was a bundle of nerves. In the Oval Office beforehand, the first lady recalled,
Randolph was ashen, his voice a whisper. “All that this ceremony means to [Randolph and President Kennedy],” I thought, “is the gift they wish it to be for Randolph’s father.”
Randolph stepped forward to respond: “Mr. President.” His voice was strong. He spoke on, with almost the voice of Winston Churchill, speaking for his father.
Sir Winston’s message, so ably delivered by his son at that honorary citizenship ceremony 52 years ago, calls to us again across the years, amidst fresh challenges to the survival of liberty:
In this century of storm and tragedy, I contemplate with high satisfaction the constant factor of the interwoven and upward progress of our peoples. Our comradeship and our brotherhood in war were unexampled. We stood together, and because of that fact the free world now stands.
Nor has our partnership any exclusive nature: the Atlantic community is a dream that can well be fulfilled to the detriment of none and to the enduring benefit and honour of the great democracies.
Those words testify to why Churchill still matters; to why, after the most critical attention paid any statesman of the recent past, we still heed and quote him.
Churchill’s legacy endures because of his ability to crystallize the convictions and aspirations of free peoples. No one spoke them better.
It also involves his longevity. From the last great British cavalry charge at Omdurman in Sudan to the beginnings of the nuclear age, Churchill was there. Most politicians are prominent for ten or fifteen years. Churchill stood at the apex of events for half a century. He was more than a fleeting figure in a war long ago.
Thoughtful people know Churchill’s story offers much more: from serious contemplations of the nature of democracy, to the proper role of the state, to the maintenance of peace without resort to war, to the optimism that in the end “all will come right.”
It is easy today for the uninformed to portray Churchill as an anachronism, or even the opposite to what he really was.
Did he make mistakes? Of course. Did he contradict himself? Frequently. But he “always had second and third thoughts,” as William Manchester wrote, “and they usually improved as he went along.”
As he reflected upon receiving his honorary American citizenship: “Our past is the key to our future, which I firmly trust and believe will be no less fertile and glorious. Let no man underrate our energies, our potentialities and our abiding power for good.”
We ought to seek to learn by his experience, often eerily relevant.