Celebrating Churchill

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 28, 2010


I am a big fan of Paul Johnson, so I am looking forward to getting his new book on Winston Churchill. It seems though that some people are taking Johnson to task for fostering conservative Churchill-worship. Steve Hayward discusses why these critiques are so puzzling:

This lazy disdain for Churchill reveals yet another facet of the decaying liberal mind, for Churchill ought to be as much of a hero of liberals as he is for conservatives. He was an enthusiast of Progressivism and the New Deal, and an early architect of the British welfare state. In American politics Churchill preferred Democrats to Republicans, got on well with Truman but badly with Eisenhower–indeed, he confided to several people that he preferred a Stevenson victory over Ike in 1952. (Lind’s complaint against Churchill as a neocon icon is based partly on seeing it as another Straussian/Republican plot, apparently unaware that Leo Strauss was also a Stevenson supporter.)

Churchill’s political philosophy, Johnson notes, was somewhat opaque; late in life Churchill told a Labour MP, “I’ve always been a liberal.” Johnson notes that Churchill “found the center attractive,” and Churchill’s dislike of partisanship, manifested in his multiple party switches, makes him the ideal prototype for today’s fetishists of post-partisanship. There’s seldom been a better example of ending “gridlock” in government. Far from sending Churchill’s bust back to London from the Oval Office, Barack Obama should have added another layer of polish and adapted the legacy to himself.

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”).

One would think that just about anybody would be willing–eager, even–to ally him/herself with Churchill. Evidently, however, the very liberals with whom Churchill had so much in common seem to think that they are too good for him. I don’t know whether this is because they haven’t read enough history, or because they are put off by the presence of conservative Churchill fans, but in either event, it is a dramatic misreading of Churchill’s legacy. What is there to say about the “reality-based community” when it disdains even favorable realities?

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