the great man

I am no small fan of biography. I find the stories of great men endlessly fascinating, an infinitely revealing way to view history. But what is greatest about biography for me is to witness the qualities of the subject that made them great — a task made more difficult when the story is told without bias: indeed, the greatest biographies are those that show the infinite complexities manifest in human character. Witness, for example, the groundbreaking Caro biographies of Lyndon Baines Johnson. The reader of those books are left to marvel that someone so flawed could accomplish such great victories in the battle for civil and social justice. But more importantly (for the point I am trying to here make) stories told with such detail give us a glimpse of those moments where true greatness shined, before the glare of history and popular media could make their journey towards greatness seem inevitable.

Indeed, as the author of the book I am here reviewing asserts, there is much talk of a sort of determinism in history, where the macro-level choices of populations ultimately determine the broad outlines of history. While there is certainly some truth to this, particularly if one is looking at history from the standpoint of hundreds or thousands of years, there is definitely something to be said for another point of view. Viz., that individuals can change the course of history, as powerfully as any other factor that might be at play. Hence the title of the book: The Churchill Factor.

The book starts by inviting the reader back to a seminal moment, perhaps the seminal moment in the dark early days of World War II, a perfect example of what I just described.

In May 1940, Churchill, the newly-minted Prime Minister, stood alone against his cabinet. They were pushing for him to come to a negotiated settlement with the Nazis. Such a settlement would almost certainly have meant that Hitler could have dominated Europe by focusing on Russia first, then turning to crush Britain when it was most convenient. It is often forgotten how much of a force the ideal of appeasement was in those days. Resistance was not inevitable, indeed it probably would not have happened without Churchill’s leadership.

Although this was the most weighty and decisive moment of Churchill’s life, it was certainly not the only one of great significance. A half-century in Parliament during one of the most tumultuous times in world history created a lifetime that was one succession of challenges after another. Churchill didn’t always lead so brilliantly.

Time and again, the qualities that made him the only man who could save Britain in 1940 made his political career a rocky one. Johnson covers all the debacles of Churchill’s career, from the Gallipoli mess, to his disastrous stand against Ghandi and Indian independence, to putting England back on the gold standard in the 1920s. Few politicians today could have flip-flopped on issues and gotten away with it as much as he did. As you can see, Churchill knew the taste of political failure. Many times during his career, plagued by depression over this failure or that, he had to force himself to carry on and find solace in painting or brick laying.

But while there were many failures, there were also many triumphs. These include his “wooing of America” during the war, his advocacy for a united Europe, his hand in helping to create the state of Israel, his role in ensuring the new war with the Soviets remained a cold war, his administrative success in drawing down the British Army after World War I as minister of munitions, his fight for social justic after the World War II, his winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953… the list goes on.

So we’ve looked at the times when his leadership and tenacity shined so bright. But what about the other qualities that make him such an endlessly fascinating and inspiring figure? Johnson also describes these virtues: bravery as a war correspondent, boundless energy as a writer and administrator, a wickedly funny wit, intellectual curiosity that knew no bounds… this list, too, could go on.

Make no mistake, however. This is book is no orgy of Churchill-worship. The flaws that make many people today dismiss Churchill as a racist, elitist, drunk, buffoonish relic of Victorian England are all here discussed. Johnson sometimes allows marks against him to go unchallenged without simply asserting the obvious: judging any historical character by the moral standards of today is not only absurd but a useless waste of time. No one admires Churchill for his off-color attitudes about race or his sometimes demeaning attitudes towards non-white subjects of the British Empire. But there is much here to admire, even by today’s standards.

What makes Johnson’s book so eminently readable is that he takes the story of Churchill’s life and makes it something more than just a biography. He takes the facts and he molds them into an original, funny, irreverent, but ultimately inspiring account of what made Churchill great. The tone of the book can best be described as what Churchill would have sounded like had he been writing in 2014. Perhaps Johnson harbors ambitions for the Prime Ministership, but he is the first to admit that he is no Churchill. However, he certainly has shown that trying to be a little bit more like Churchill in your day to day life can be infinitely rewarding.

So, in the spirit of living a truly Churchillian life, I urge you: learn a new word. Paint a picture. Read a book (or two) today. Go at life with 100% energy. Have a glass of champagne with dinner. Let go of your past failures, and remain steadfastly bound to your principles.

Isn’t it grand, to live with an extra dash of the Churchill factor?

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