We love our American President for his gift with words, and we learn from him in how he uses them—in articulating war, in assailing Wall Street, or even in making cool jokes at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this past weekend. We now know: it is increasingly important that those we place in public office can communicate artfully, both here and abroad. The news that the upcoming British election has taken on an American character (“Posh, Posher, Poshest,” the New York Times Week in Review headlined a piece about the current English electorate’s emphasis on character) reminds us that the best history lessons are repeatedly fairly frequently. Like, Be eloquent.
If ambitious for eloquence, there are rules. First rule, conveniently, is English in origin: know your Churchill. Most Brits do.
What was once said of MTV we concede to be true of Churchill: too much is never enough. His place in history is one thing, but the things that he wrote—often to make an income as well as to secure his legacy—are worth knowing about and, if one ever had time, reading in their entirety. Thanks to the Churchill-related subsection of the book business, we are reminded regularly of the diverse aspects of his genius. This weekend brought Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s review in the Times Book Review of Max Hastings’s Winston’s War. The byline on the piece tells us that Wheatcroft is in the process of writing yet another Churchill book, about “the reputation and posthumous cult of Winston Churchill.”
One of the finest anecdotes Wheatcroft highlights is this:
John F. Kennedy said that in 1940 Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it to battle. But that was the problem. Churchill saw war in rhetorical terms, as pageantry and drama, as though eloquence alone were enough.
Is eloquence enough? If Churchilliana is a cult, it is a cult we feel comfortable joining. Last fall Paul Johnson’s brief, beautiful biography, Churchill, ended with a bit of “what-Winston-did-which-we-can-learn-from” and they were very wise . . . tips. Churchill’s keys to happiness were not, Eat your peas. Or even, Eat, pray, love. What the British wartime Prime Minister took seriously above all were: duty to country; duty to family; and the belief that a life well-lived was a life in which one made an impact on one’s world. Sir Winston entered his world with a place somewhat firmly secured. He was Poshest. But, unlike eloquence, (even in that place at that time) poshest was not enough.