- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 11, 2001

By Geoffrey Best
Hambledon and London, $29.95, 384 pages, illus.

At a time when the United States and Britain face what could prove to be their greatest crisis since World War II, both President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have eagerly donned what they believe is the mythical mantle of the legendary Winston Churchill.
In the United States, indeed, Churchill's star has never faded, and the extraordinarily widespread and even virulent attempts at debunking him, which were so de rigeur in British academia in the 1960s and '70s never really took root on this side of the Atlantic. On the contrary, the half-American Churchill became, if anything, an even greater folk hero here than at home. And he became, and remains, one of the greatest heroic icons of the post-Reagan Republican Party, second only to Ronald Reagan himself.
But Reaganite Republicans read Churchill extremely selectively, especially neo-conservative ones. In his vast sprawling active political career of 55 years they focus on him as a visionary and charismatic war leader. And from their many panegyrics to him, one realizes that they believe he saved Britain and won World War II by simply taking an implacable moral stand against the Forces of Darkness and giving inspiring speeches. American scholars like Elliott Cohen who offer a more nuanced, complex and accurate picture get little thanks for it in such circles.
Geoffrey Best's splendid new book "Churchill: A Study in Greatness" is therefore to be especially welcomed, coming at a time when the real qualities and example that Churchill brought to Britain's crisis leadership in 1940 are more valuable than ever.
Mr. Best has won acclaim as one of Britain's most experienced and distinguished historians and he remains on top of his game here. The number of published works dealing with Churchill now runs into the many thousands, but this is a valuable addition to them. William Manchester, sadly, has indicated that he does not expect to complete a crowning third volume of his splendid "Last Lion" Churchill biography which now only goes up to 1940. And Sir Martin Gilbert's many one-volume studies, while far more accessible than his colossal multi-volume work listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest biography of all time are much stronger on exposition than they are on assessment and analysis.
Mr. Best fills that gap admirably. In the best tradition of Oxford historiography, following such luminous examples as Lord Alan Bullock, his work is a marvel of densely researched scholarship expertly sifted and presented with misleading ease in an elegant prose style. The author presents a Churchill for All Seasons, and it is also, for 21st-century American readers, a Churchill Nobody Knows and one that many of Churchill's Reaganite boosters would not even want to know.
This is a free trading champion of democracy certainly. But Mr. Best's Churchill is also one of the two most important architects of Britain's Welfare State before World War I, creating a social security system that United States would not see for another quarter of a century until Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal legislation in 1935. And the reforms included health insurance medical coverage that the United States would not match, let alone surpass until Lyndon Johnson's Great Society in 1965.
Like FDR, the aristocratic Churchill was reviled among many conservatives as traitor to his own class. In his World War I coverage, Mr. Best, while impeccable in his judgment, skates over the details of Churchill's crucial work preparing Britain's Royal Navy for WWI but lets him off far too easily over the catastrophic Allied defeat at Gallipoli. Churchill sent the British Imperial Army to land in open rowing boats made of wood and they were cut to pieces by Turkish gunfire. Nearly 30 years later, mindful of the lessons, he was a driving force in creating armored landing craft capable of carrying tanks. They proved essential to the many brilliantly successful Allied amphibious operations of World War II.
But in his assessment of Churchill as WWII crisis prime minister, Mr. Best comes into his own. And the picture he paints is a far cry indeed from the Ronald Reagan-George W. Bush model of determined but detached presidential leadership. Mr. Best's Churchill is an energetic meddler and micro-manager, and it is a good thing too. He shows a relentless curiosity, knowledge and even wisdom in probing the bureaucratic innards of the great British government machine. Yet at the same time he reaches boldly out beyond his immediate circle to bring in the greatest talents and strongest personalities from the opposition Labour Party. He thus creates what is widely and rightly regarded as one of the most successful, brilliant and outstanding governments Britain has ever had in its long history.
Churchill, in striking contrast, to the present incumbent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, also does not give a fig about his own "comfort level." He keeps at his right hand throughout the war a man he personally felt an instinctive dislike for the great Northern Irish soldier, Gen. later Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke. They argued constantly and for hours on end. Churchill seethed that Brooke later ennobled as Lord Alanbrooke kept quashing his favorite, bold military schemes. Yet he had the wisdom and stature to realize that Brooke was usually right and that he desperately needed him to actually run the war. The contrast with President Bush's evident concern to keep himself surrounded only by comfortable old friends and pliant cronies could not be more striking.
It is not easy leading a great nation through a time of war and crisis. Giving inspiring speeches is only the icing on the cake. Churchill already embodied vast experience of war leadership and of failure in it as well, as Sir Robert Rhodes James pointed out in another justly acclaimed study by the time he took power in 1940.
He did not merely inspire the British people by blind courage and words acommon romantic American misconception but by the energy, skill and success with which he constructed and ran his government. And although he had to endure two and half years of defeat, disaster, privations and Nazi bombing until the tide decisively turned in November of 1942, he started his great premiership with dramatic and tangible military triumphs. These were: the rescue of the British Army from Dunkirk, the destruction of the French Fleet to prevent it falling into Nazi hands, the defeat of the Luftwaffe and prevention of Nazi invasion in the Battle of Britain, and the annihilation of Italy's quarter-million man army in Libya.
It was these tangible achievements that gave credibility and weight to his famous wartime speeches. Without them, the inspiring rhetoric would soon have dissipated like flat seltzer.
Churchill was indeed as big even bigger than his mythical image suggests. But the real qualities which he embodied, and which the United States now needs more than ever were far more complex and multifaceted than is generally acknowledged. Mr. Best recognizes this well. That is another reason and not the least of them to celebrate his splendid book.
Martin Sieff is managing editor, international affairs for United Press International.

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