The Magazine

What Makes a Man of the Century

There were lots of important individuals, but one stands out

Jan 3, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 16 • By DAVID FRUM
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One possible criticism of this list of runners-up is that it's rather heavy with Germans. But then, how could it not be? Fritz Stern, the German-Jewish emigre historian, wist-fully recalls in one of his books a day "in April 1979 in West Berlin. Raymond Aron and I were walking to an exhibit commemorating the centenary of the births of Einstein, Max von Laue, Otto Hahn, and Lisa Meitner. We were passing bombed-out squares and half-decrepit mansions, when Aron suddenly stopped at a crossing, turned to me, and said, 'It should have been Germany's century.'"

Instead it became America's. If the rules of the man-of-the-century parlor game permitted collective winners, the best entry might well be that proposed by the editors of Newsweek magazine: the American soldier and taxpayer. Again and again over the past hundred years, people with evil ambitions have spun their plans on the assumption that the American republic was too chaotic, too pacifist, or too weak-willed to stop them. From the kaiser to the Kremlin, they got the surprise of their lives. But rules are rules. The man of the century has to be an individual, not 200 million people.

Which man? Actually, this is one parlor game that isn't too hard. Because the story is ending happily, he should have been a force for good -- which rules out Hitler and Lenin. He should have been great in his personal attributes as well as his accomplishments -- which rules out Truman. And he must have been indispensable: a man but for whom all that came after would have been radically different -- which rules out Gorbachev and John Paul II as well as FDR.

So who? Who else but Winston L. S. Churchill? If he'd been killed by that car that struck him on Fifth Avenue in 1931, Britain would almost certainly have cut a deal with Hitler in May 1940, as John Lukacs compellingly argues in his excellent new book, Five Days in London. Even Patrick Buchanan might have been chilled by the result.

President Clinton explained his choice of Roosevelt by noting that as a patriot he had to choose an American. Churchill was not only the son of an American mother, but one of only five honorary citizens of the United States. There must be something else that disqualified him in Clinton's eyes, and after reading Lukacs one can almost guess what it must have been. The crucial moment in Churchill's life was the moment when he prevailed upon a terrified British cabinet to fight on under seemingly hopeless circumstances. Can it possibly be that Clinton has the self-knowledge to understand that if by some freak of fate he'd been sitting around that cabinet table, he'd have been one of those who wanted to cut a deal?

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His history of the 1970s, How We Got Here, will be published next month by Basic Books.