- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 31, 2005

CHURCHILL AND AMERICA

By Martin Gilbert

Free Press, $30, 528 pages

GREATNESS: REAGAN, CHURCHILL, AND THE MAKING OF EXTRAORDINARY LEADERS

By Steven F. Hayward

Crown Forum, $22, 208 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES

Who doesn’t admire Winston Churchill? Not me. You can take your Founding Fathers, Abe Lincoln and throw Teddy Roosevelt in for good measure and I will still have that fantasy dinner with Churchill, as long as there is plenty of brandy. So if your family has a grouchy Uncle Charlie (and whose doesn’t) your birthday gift problems are over. “Churchill and America” will keep him reading quietly in the living room all afternoon.

What official Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert has served up is a lightly written and informative slice of Churchilliana that makes a persuasive case that that most quintessential Englishman considered himself — and was criticized by his enemies — as being at least half-American in his birth, blood and attitudes. The circumstances of Churchill’s birth come straight out of the Gilded Age novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Leonard Jerome was a sometimes successful Wall Street financier and sometimes part-owner of The New York Times.

Following the Gilded Age practice, Jerome sent his wife and three daughters husband hunting in England in 1873; all three were advantageously successful. Jennie, the middle daughter, snagged Lord Randolph Churchill, one of the eccentric sons of the Duke of Marlborough. Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was the first of two sons. Denied much affection or attention by these two self-absorbed parents, the boy transferred much of his love to his mother’s exotic homeland.

And what a homeland it was in those days. What boy of any spirit did not thrill to the still fresh memories of the American Civil War or the even more romantic reality of the Western frontier? One of his most vivid lifelong thrills was wangling permission to skip school and witness Buffalo Bill Cody’s spectacular Wild West Show in London when he was 12.

Perhaps in part because he was cast adrift emotionally by his parents (Mr. Gilbert deals in greater detail about this in his multivolume official biography), young Winston adopted some of the more visible traits of his maternal grandfather. In a word, he became a too-American pusher for some English tastes. He never had enough money to begin with, but Churchill all his life was a demonic self-promoter, a writer of personal adventures after chasing after those experiences at some considerable personal risk.

Although most Churchill fans know about his experiences as a war correspondent in the Boer War, his first visit to America predated that escapade. He passed through New York in 1895 to witness Spanish army efforts to put down the early insurrections in Cuba that led to the Spanish American war. Wherever Churchill went for the rest of his life he used his observations as grist for exhausting lecture tours and a flood of periodical articles and books that made him one of the highest paid journalists and authors of his age. He needed every penny.

But while Churchill had genuine affection for the idea of America and things American, Mr. Gilbert lets us understand that real Americans bewildered him with disheartening regularity. He could be flattered by “the better sort” such as the deranged newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Bernard Baruch snowed him into dodgy investments and let him lose every dime in the 1929 stock market crash. He too often mistook Franklin Roosevelt and denigrated Harry Truman as a novice.

Probably because Churchill was like most men of his time, he put far too much faith in the fantasy that Americans and Britons were tied by a racial bond of blood that made us brothers — with the English being the older brothers, of course. The reluctance of the American people to leap into two world wars caused by European fecklessness baffled and disheartened him. When we would turn away from the world after those wars, he was taken aback.

Now if Uncle Charlie also is devoted to Ronald Reagan, there is another book present for you. “Greatness” by Steven F. Hayward, an author and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, makes the case that there is more in common in the leadership characters of those two astonishingly dissimilar people — Churchill and Reagan — than you would think at first.

Both began their political careers in journeys from the left to the right. Both had eerily similar attitudes on national defense, the welfare state and economic policy. And the most famous speech of each defined the Cold War (Churchill’s at the beginning and Reagan’s at the end). This is a well researched and nicely written book with enough “aha!” similarities to make one think that there might be something in the characters of these two landmark figures to be worth teaching to future generations.

James Srodes’s latest biography is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

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