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The Churchill Test

There’s something about Sir Winston that annoys the American left.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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To be sure, Churchill has had significant liberal admirers: Isaiah Berlin and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. come to mind. John F. Kennedy was one, and was greatly disappointed that he could not lure him to the White House during Churchill’s final visit to the United States in 1961. And there are a few contemporary liberals (Chris Matthews, Sen. Dick Durbin) who count themselves as Churchill fans. The most popular biography was written by William Manchester, an old school liberal, while Johnson thinks Roy Jenkins, a longtime Labour party leader, wrote the best one-volume biography (in which Jenkins says he changed his mind about Churchill in the course of his writing, coming to regard Churchill as “the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street”). 

For the most part, however, liberals are happy—eager in fact—to cede Churchill as a conservative property, and beyond outliers such as Manchester and Jenkins, one looks in vain for a liberal writer treating Churchill well or at length. The left’s hostility, or boredom, about Churchill has several sources, a few of them narrowly substantive (old complaints about imperialism) but mostly derived from the twin scourges of modern liberalism: egalitarianism and nihilism. No amount of liberal acts from Churchill can counterbalance his inegalitarian sentiments—and his example of human excellence. When liberals decry Churchill “hero worship” by the right, it isn’t the worship that arrests them but the hero part. What rankles the critics of Paul Johnson’s biography is its plain recognition of Churchill’s greatness, and the “joy” (Johnson’s term) of writing his life. Seeing the churlish response to Johnson’s brief biography recalls the judgment of the British historian Geoffrey Elton:

When I meet a historian who cannot think that there have been great men, great men moreover in politics, I feel myself in the presence of a bad historian. And there are times when I incline to judge all historians by their opinion of Winston Churchill—whether they can see that, no matter how much better the details, often damaging, of the man and his career become known, he still remains, quite simply, a great man.

Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders.

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