IT HAS BEEN WIDELY reported since Super Tuesday that John McCain has effectively sewn up the Republican nomination for president but must still convince enough American conservatives that he stands as heir to Ronald Reagan. This poses an obstacle to his election in November. McCain might be more successful in wooing conservatives if he claimed the mantle of a different Republican icon, Winston Churchill, a maverick distrusted in his day by Conservatives and a man whom McCain praised frequently in his books. The parallels between McCain and Churchill are striking and instructive.
Both grew up as underachievers in the shadow of prominent fathers and ancestors and then surpassed them in renown. Churchill's father was chancellor of the Exchequer, a descendant of the Duke of Marlborough who defeated the armies of Louis XIV, while McCain's father and grandfather were prominent admirals. Both McCain and Churchill were fearless soldiers and prisoners of war, although Churchill escaped Boer captivity after mere weeks while McCain endured more than five grueling years at the Hanoi Hilton. Both have felt most at home in battle, whether in war or political chambers, and have shared a restlessness to advance their own careers and the cause of their countries.
Neither Churchill nor McCain was ever liked much by his colleagues. Perhaps early on Churchill was more liked and his brilliance more respected, but he switched from the Conservatives in 1904 to the Liberals with much newfound partisan fervor, and the Conservatives never forgave him even after he returned to the fold in 1924--even after he won WWII. Churchill's dispute with the party leadership over control of India (he favored it), Nazi Germany (he was against it), Zionism (he was for it), and other divisive issues, as well as his occasional outreach to Labourites--indeed, he headed a wartime coalition government--did not help his popularity among the party faithful. McCain has always been a Republican, but, without being the partisan warrior Churchill was, he has never been personally popular with his party colleagues. He further alienated the party faithful and establishment by co-sponsoring legislation with Democrats. Both have been perceived by colleagues as erratic, and occasionally harsh in personal relations.
Fundamental to Churchill's worldview was the belief that priorities had to be rigidly ranked and that the supreme interests need to be vigorously and single-mindedly pursued. Chief among those interests was national security. McCain has suggested a similar approach. Indeed, McCain and Churchill lived and breathed national security issues, and it is in this policy field that their similarities are most pronounced. They both strongly believed in their countries, considering them the chief champions of civilization, and they have been rarities in usually putting national security interests ahead of their political fortunes.
From the time he became First Lord of the Admiralty shortly before WWI, Churchill was mostly tough-minded and prescient about major national security issues. He took the unpopular stands of seeking to overthrow the new Bolshevik government in 1919-1920 (derisively dubbed "Churchill's War"), warning against the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s when appeasement was overwhelmingly popular, and then privately and publicly warning against the emerging Soviet threat shortly after Yalta in early 1945 when the British people were exhausted after almost six years of war.
Churchill dismissed the political consequences of his positions on preeminent matters. Indicative of his attitude was his private response in 1919 to criticism over his anti-Bolshevik crusade: "I cannot help feeling a most dreadful & ever present sense of responsibility. Am I wrong? How easy for me to shrug my shoulders & say it is on the Cabinet, or on the Paris [Versailles] Conference. I cannot do it." Although steadfast in principle, Churchill remained tactically flexible, making alliances even with despised regimes and former enemies in order to advance British national security interests against those he usually depicted as foes of Western civilization.