I was still in grade school when I first heard Winston Churchill’s voice. A family friend had a record called I Can Hear It Now that was put together by Edward R. Murrow, that great voice of radio news during World War II.
Murrow had put together a series of sound clips from the ’30s and ’40s, covering the period from FDR’s accession to the White House until the Japanese surrender on the deck of the battleship Missouri at the end of the war. For someone with an endless appetite for the history of the world wars, this was a feast.
Murrow had been in London during the German Blitz, and he had brought home the drama by holding the microphone open to hear the wailing of the air-raid sirens, the clatter of the feet of Londoners running to shelter, and the sounds of the explosions of the anti-aircraft guns and the bombs. With great emotion, Murrow introduced clips of Churchill’s most powerful speeches by saying, “The time had come to mobilize the English language and send it into battle, a spearhead of hope for Britain and the world.”
Then came that great voice, saying words that were so deeply lived and felt that they inspired a nearly beaten Britain, all alone against the Nazi storm surge, to hold on and endure. That voice also displayed to a transfixed world a determination to fight for freedom at all costs.
Churchill’s political power was built on his love of his country and its cause, so that even his political opponents had to be respected and honored.
Ever since, I have measured the voices of political leaders against that voice. The closest I heard in this country was the magnificent oratory of Martin Luther King Jr., whose words flowed from a heart that was one with his suffering people and was suffused with the moral grandeur of the Hebrew prophets. His cause was real, his inspiration authentic, and his selfless dedication to the cause testified to by his martyr’s death. It is right and proper that we as a nation mark his life and legacy with a day dedicated to the man and his message as we will this Monday.
For a better comparison, we should look to the language of our political leaders, for though Churchill wrote in Biblical cadences, he was a politician by profession, not a preacher. Eisenhower, the president of my youth, could convey sensibility and determination, though not inspiration. Kennedy could come up with a phrase now and again that grabbed the imagination. Nixon, though, seemed to be carrying on an internal dialogue; he didn’t touch his listener’s soul. Obama was more polished than Nixon, but every word seemed constantly calculated and therefore chilling. Of all the presidents, only Reagan could even approach Churchill’s passion, clarity, and sure sense of the heart of those whom he was addressing.
It seemed in character that Obama banished the White House’s bust of Churchill from its position of prominence. Obama was a few years ahead of the woke statue topplings, ever the community organizer in the vanguard. He measured Churchill’s greatness to be his own chilly ideology, an ideology that set loose what turned into an avalanche in 2020’s endless summer of riots and in the Garland Justice Department’s campaign to cast as domestic terrorists those parents who object too publicly against the CRT infiltration of school curricula.
As much as Churchill was a seasoned politician who fought for political power just like the others, he clearly felt a deeper responsibility than just winning elections and a deeper loyalty than that of his party.
Loyalty deeper than party was evident in his changing parties twice during his elected career. Even changing once was rare enough in the highest levels of politics. But more telling was that he was not afraid to differ on principle even within his party. It is telling that his most famous speeches of opposition were against Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler. Chamberlain was the leader of the Conservative Party to which Churchill belonged, and Chamberlain’s party held an overwhelming and very loyal majority in Parliament. As a result, Churchill was excluded from Cabinet posts for years until the outbreak of World War II made Churchill indispensable. (READ MORE: Who Will Be America’s Churchill?)
Churchill’s elevation to the premiership came not as a result of an election, but as a result of the need to construct a national government of all the parties in order to unify the country in its crisis. Churchill commanded the confidence of the Labour and Liberal Parties for the role. Despite their opposition to him in many political matters, he had established trust that transcended political difference.
In the war itself, Churchill was to lift up the fight against Nazism above all political differences. Despite the fact that he had spoken for years against communism and had even helped launch a military intervention to try to squash Lenin’s new regime, he was able to work effectively with Stalin to coordinate the worldwide campaign to stop Hitler and then crush him. When Stalin betrayed the trust of the Allies after the war, Churchill was able to inspire effective resistance to Stalin’s expansionism among all the British and American parties, even though he no longer held the reins of Britain’s government.
Admittedly, such characters are rare. We can hardly expect someone of that caliber always to be present. But what we can expect of ourselves as we approach the 57th anniversary of his passing is that we will not fail to study his greatness and strive to see the values and methods he embodied incorporated in the living political thought of our day.
This musing was inspired by opening Churchill’s History of the Second World War to its introduction and reading these words:
I have adhered to my rule of never criticizing any measure of war or policy after the event unless I had before expressed publicly or formally my opinion or warning about it. Indeed in the after-light I have softened many of the severities of contemporary controversy. It has given me pain to record these disagreements with so many men whom I liked or respected; but it would be wrong not to lay the lessons of the past before the future.
The sense of integrity that this conveys is stunning in the context of today’s tawdry politics. The straightforward English communicates directly, because, in the words of Proverbs, As the face of a man is reflected back in water, so too is the heart of one person to another. Churchill’s words sprang from the core of a life of dedication and commitment to the public. They emerge directly from that heart and communicate that sense of honor and morality that so suffused his heart and soul. Anyone who hears or reads his words can feel the integrity and power that sent them forth.
Compare that to the drivel of today’s leaders desperately trying to bolster support by presenting words that their consultants have assured them will seem bold to a lot of focus groups. “Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?” asked Joe Biden (who actually is on the Senate’s record for having voted to restore Davis’ citizenship), looking and sounding querulous even while trying his level best to be inspiring.
Seeing him, it was not Churchill who sprang to mind, but Groucho Marx: “In politics, sincerity is everything. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Churchill’s political power, in contradistinction, was built on his love of his country and its cause, so that even his political opponents had to be respected and honored.
Can anyone say our politics is better for being without this respect?
Best to give Churchill the last word: “Let no one look down on those honourable, well-meaning men whose actions are chronicled in these pages, without searching his own heart, reviewing his own discharge of public duty, and applying the lessons of the past to his future conduct.”