The e-book generation lucks out. Winston Churchill is going digital and global. More than 40 volumes of his prose are being downloaded so that they can be read throughout the world. The man who said “history will be kind to me for I intend to write it,” won’t have to depend on the kindness of readers. Nor on their ignorance, either. A few years ago a poll of Englishmen revealed that a quarter of them said they thought Churchill was a myth, not a man. Those with a little knowledge of history resented it when President Obama returned the bust of Churchill that Tony Blair, then the prime minister, sent to President George W. Bush to inspire him in the wake of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Mr. Bush put it in a place of prominence.
Mr. Obama obviously does not share the admiration held not only by George W. but by John F. Kennedy, who, on conferring honorary American citizenship of Churchill at the White House in 1963, praised him as a defender of freedom, wartime leader, orator, historian and statesman. JFK recalled the tribute of Edward R. Murrow: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
Arthur Klebanoff, head of RosettaBooks, which is making Churchill’s e-books available, observed how unusual it is for a world leader to be a fine writer as well. Churchill “didn’t just win the Nobel Prize for Literature,” he says, “he won it for a good reason.”
That sets him apart from other winners, including a certain president who won the Nobel Peace Prize before he had been in office two years, not so much for making peace as for just being Barack Obama.
In an age of impatience, it’s worth noting that Churchill’s rise to power was not meteoric. He was already 65 years old when, in May 1940, as Britain stood alone against Hitler and the Nazis, he addressed Parliament and said “blood, toil, tears and sweat” were ahead. He had been prime minister for only three days, a prophet in the wilderness whose repeated warnings about Hitler had been ignored by everyone else.
Churchill is a model for both young and old for how he overcame personal obstacles and persevered. His vulnerabilities growing up offer the generations of digital shorthanders lessons in how language and perception, style and insight, foresight and tenacity are key to leadership.
As a boy he was a poor student, suffering a speech impediment, hardly an attribute for someone who would become an orator compared to Pericles and Lincoln. His wealthy and prominent parents did not pay much attention to him. When he was sent off to boarding school at the age of 8, he begged them to visit, but they didn’t. His father couldn’t remember his birthday. He had to take the entrance exam for Sandhurst, the royal military college, three times before he was admitted.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal,” Churchill said later. “It is the courage to continue that counts.”
For those seeking an appetizer to his feast of e-books, there’s an online site with his most famous quotations. Churchill would approve. “It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations,” he said. From them come descriptions of pith and lasting profundity, such as: “A politician needs the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen.”
I’m still addicted to paper and ink, so I reached for a copy of “The Gathering Storm,” his prelude to World War II, to test the challenge of a professor who once told me to open the book to any page and see whether I could put it down. There was a passage that Churchill called a “digression,” about a meeting he had in a Munich hotel in 1932 with an intermediary who said Adolf Hitler was eager to meet him, and sought an appointment. “Why is your chief so violent about the Jews?” Churchill asked. “What is the sense of being against a man simply because of his birth?” When the questions were repeated to Hitler, the request was withdrawn. The two men never met. “Later on, when he was all powerful, I was to receive several invitations from him,” Churchill writes, and adds with British understatement, “but by that time a lot had happened, and I excused myself.”
Coinciding with the publication of the e-books, there’s an exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York called “Churchill: The Power of Words.” In an opening lecture for the exhibition, Churchill’s granddaughter offered a reason why Churchill’s language demands imitation today: “You can listen to my grandfather’s words without ever wondering, ‘What on earth did he mean by that?’ “
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.