Former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once recounted to me in his Etonian drawl, "I was Resident Minister in Algiers in early 1942, and Winston said to me, 'Harold what kind of man was Cromwell?' I groped for an answer, 'A rather aggressive man wasn't he, Prime Minister?' Churchill growled, 'Harold, Cromwell was obsessed with Spain but he never saw the danger of France.' "
His point was that Churchill was the only one at that time who saw an allied victory as inevitable but was already turning attention to dealing with the Soviet Union in a post-war world.
In both "Eminent Churchillians" by Andrew Roberts (Simon and Schuster. 354 pages. $27.50) and "Churchill: The Unruly Giant," by Norman Rose (Free Press. 516 pages. $25) a dominant theme is how Churchill so often flaunted the conventional wisdom of his day.
In this time of rapid global political change there can be few more valuable lessons than the examples of Churchill's insight into the future and his courage to act upon it.
In the years before World War II he attacked the appeasement of Hitler. When the war ended, he sounded the alarm against Stalinism.
Both President Truman and Prime Minister Attlee distanced themselves from Churchill after his Iron Curtain message in 1946.
The motif of Andrew Roberts' "Eminent Churchillians" is that the establishment distrusted Churchill in 1940. The prevailing belief was that armament led to war and appeasement to peace.
King George V detested Churchill and his views ever since he proposed the abolition of the House of Lords in 1911. He would repeat his father King Edward's remark that his initials W.C. "were apt." When his son George VI was compelled to send for Churchill to form a ministry it was like the taking of foul-tasting medicine. Chief Parliamentary Secretary John Colville summed up the opinion of Churchill, "Seldom [has] a Prime Minister . . . taken office with the Establishment so dubious of choice and so prepared to find its doubts justified."
Colville was mirroring the distaste of the Tory Party. Churchill was not only considered "unruly" but unreliable. He had broken with the Conservatives
in 1905 on its blindness to social injustice and with its leaders 30 years later on its myopia about Hitler. If it had been left to the Conservative Party, Churchill would not have become Prime Minister in 1940.
Being right too soon is never a recipe for political popularity. In the beginning of this century Churchill predicted and championed the eight-hour day and the creation of Israel. Later he would foresee two world wars and the rise of Stalinism.
Edward R. Murrow once introduced a record series of Churchill's speeches by saying, ". . . is the only man in the annals of time who ever prophesied history, made history and recorded history." Churchill also wrote his own speeches.
It had been said that "if Churchill had had a speechwriter in World War II, Britain might be speaking German today."
The politician who does not take the time and effort to work out his beliefs on paper is not wedded to those beliefs. Like a tie or shirt, he can shed them to fit changing fashion.
Today's politicians are clones of anchormen with blown-dry hair and prepared scripts.
One senator who ran for president stumbled when it was discovered that he "borrowed" not only a speech of a British Labourite leader but his persona. Another senator, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, revealed to this writer that he didn't know what the Iron Curtain address was all about.
Disdain for polls
A comparison to Churchill invites the contrast in texture between the plastic paper of a copying machine and a rich tapestry. Churchill didn't let himself be guided by polls. If he had, he would not have challenged the Munich Pact. He disdained polling "as constantly taking your temperature." Today we have a president who not only regularly relies on pollsters but even invited to Camp David a professional mood therapist.
Churchill knew who he was, what he stood for and what he planned to do. He didn't need pollsters or consultants to define himself or his views.
The gift of insight is not born but made - through reading, study and contemplation. Today's politician, rushing about Washington and from one speaking engagement to another in his constituency, has little time for such pursuits.
Churchill said that as "a historian," he studied the past to discover patterns applicable to the present. As "a scientist," he took data and projected them 10 or 20 years into the future.
For the politician to be a futurist is to risk his career. Leaders with a vision who have the resolve to forge that vision into action are rarities.
Churchill, referring to the conventional thinking of the 1930s, wrote "Unwisdom prevailed." Conventional wisdom may not always be wrong but it always needs to be challenged. Too many politicians conjure up Churchill's likening of the political gutless to the circus' "Boneless Wonder."
President Nixon spurned the advice of "China-watchers" to delay any overture to the People's Republic until after the Vietnam War.
Pat Moynihan, the closest thing today to "Churchillian" in terms of style and intellectual independence, was called a racist when he predicted the cost to society of exploding illegitimacy rates.
Unfortunately, Churchill today has become almost a caricature. Mr. Rose's biography does not dim the message of that courage with anecdotes attesting to his capacity of both wit and drink. Even though Churchill had an unparalleled Parliamentary career that began in the reign of Queen Victoria and ended in the tenure of Lyndon Johnson, Mr. Rose manages to limn his achievements in a single tome.
In Mr. Rose's portrait, Churchill is often selfish, usually cantankerous, but always fearless.
Mr. Roberts, in the "Eminent Churchillians," affords a more novel insight - a portrait of Churchill contemporaries who shunned him when the country needed their authoritative sanction and later scurried to cover up their appeasement attitudes as they sought to include themselves as supporting cast in his heroic drama of World War II.
For one who was such a monarchist, it is curious that most of the Royal Family found Churchill unacceptable.
Almost a pacifist, George V thought Churchill a jingoist. In 1935, he said to David Lloyd-George, "I would go to Trafalgar Square and wave a red flag myself - sooner than allow this country to be brought in [to another war]."
King George VI cheered the Munich pact. His wife, Queen Elizabeth, wrote that members of her family cried when Neville Chamberlain resigned. Mr. Roberts is scathing in his treatment of Britain's war-time monarch. "Bertie," as he was called in the family, is likened to Bertie Wooster, the addle-head whom P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves served.
Lady Dugdale, whose husband later became Conservative Party chairman and served in Churchill's Cabinet, wrote in 1940, "W.C. they regard with complete distrust and they hate his boasting broadcasts. W.C. is really the counterpart of Gring in England full of desire for blood, blitzkrieg and bloated with over-ego and feeding."
Other luminaries Mr. Roberts excoriates are Lord Halifax and Sir Arthur Bryant. Halifax, King George's personal choice to succeed Chamberlain, suggested a state visit by the F hrer to London in 1939.
Bryant's book "Unfinished Victory" in 1940 was, in Mr. Roberts' words, "an apology for Nazism."
Mr. Roberts, in assessing King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, writes, "they represented the most unprepossessing aspects of conventional wisdom at precisely the time when it was proving to be a dangerous mistake."
It might be said that Mr. Roberts himself defies "conventional wisdom" in printing untouched-up portraits of the Royal Family and other titans of the Establishment.
On the other hand, Mr. Rose's biography is testament to Churchill's own maxim, "We must strive to combine the virtues of wisdom and daring."
James C. Humes is the author of 20 books, including "Wit and Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin" (1995), "Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill" (1994), "Sir Winston Method" (1991) and "Churchill: Speaker of the Century" (1980). A Philadelphia lawyer and communications consultant, he has served in the State Department and the White House. He met Winston Churchill in 1953.