Sunday, February 22, 2009

Edited by Richard M. Langworth
PublicAffairs, $29.96, 640 pages

On Nov. 30, 1954, as Sir Winston Churchill celebrated his 80th birthday at London’s Westminster Hall, he told his audience he had “never accepted what many people have kindly said, namely, that I inspired the Nation. Their will was resolute, and remorseless and, as it proved, unconquerable. It fell to me to express [that will]. And if I found the right words, you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue. It was the Nation and the Race — all around the globe — that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give … the roar.”

What understatement. After all, it was Winston Churchill who, according to Edward R. Murrow, “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” The Right Honorable Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874-1965) was a Harrow Old Boy, a Sandhurst cadet, a soldier, a war correspondent, a writer of op-ed essays and a highly successful lecturer. He was a member of Parliament both as a conservative and a liberal, an undersecretary of state for the colonies (1905) and, after World War I, minister for munitions. He was twice First Lord of the Admiralty (1911 and 1939), a chancellor of the exchequer (1924), and twice prime minister (1940-1945 and 1951-1955).

During World War II, Churchill became the personification of Britain’s never say die spirit, a bulldog figure in his Coke hat, vested suit, spotted bow tie, a cigar clamped in his teeth and his arm raised in the “V for Victory” sign. (My favorite photograph of Churchill was taken during a July 1940 tour of English defense positions near Hartlepool in which Churchill, in chalk-striped suit and with chomped cigar, is clutching a Tommy gun.) Moreover, Churchill’s influence on his own country, and the world, cannot be overemphasized. He was one of very few who shaped the 20th century and whose influence, prescience, grit and courage still sets an example for us in the 21st.

And through all of this, Churchill wrote. Oh, how he wrote. He published his first book in 1898 at the age of 25. At the time of his death in January 1965, Churchill had published an incredible 15 million words spanning countless books, collections of his speeches, essays, articles and miscellaneous writings. In 1953, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

His most famous and most-repeated words, however, are probably those offered in Parliament on May 13, 1940, in his first speech as prime minister, when Churchill told the British nation he had “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

The delivery (I have the recording and now know from whom the actor John Houseman learned timing) was pure Churchill. But “Churchill’s five best-remembered words,” writes Richard M. Langworth in one of the five appendices to this lovingly assembled and definitive collection of Churchillisms, ripostes, aphorisms and quotations, “did not originate with him.”

Really? Oh, yes. Mr. Langworth’s citation (Ralph Keyes’ “The Quote Verifier”), mentions similar language by Cicero, Livy, John Donne, Lord Byron, 19th-century playwright John Davidson and even an untitled 1939 magazine article by one Lady Tegart that characterizes Jewish colonies in Palestine as “built on a foundation of blood, sweat, and tears.” And, Mr. Langworth continues: “Churchill’s [own] use of the term started long before World War II, in his Boer War days.”

Unlike all too many of today’s politicians, journalists, novelists and others who falsely claim the title of author, Churchill actually wrote — or dictated — his own speeches, books and articles. His mastery of language, his ability to turn a phrase, his breadth and depth of knowledge, his extensive life experience — he was a widely traveled and relentlessly inquisitive man — gave him the ability to craft elegant, incisive prose. He could be provocative, too: Churchill was never infected by the debilitating intellectual scurvy of political correctness.

On Hitler’s “Mein Kampf:” “Here was the new Koran of faith and war: turgid, verbose, shapeless, but pregnant with its message.”

On Gandhi: “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace.”

On popular will: “We welcome any country where the people own the government, and not the government the people.”

On criticism of America: “I want no criticism of America at my table. The Americans criticise themselves more than enough.”

Some of the best Churchill quotes have to do with alcohol and cigars, both of which Churchill is remembered as a prodigious consumer. He advised his son Randolph, “Of two cigars, pick the longest and the strongest.” Most everyone has heard or read Churchill’s wonderful aphorism, “All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” But Mr. Langworth has found an even better gem, mined from “Memoirs of General the Lord Ismay,” in which Churchill says to King George VI: “When I was younger I made it a rule never to take strong drink before lunch. It is now my rule never to do so before breakfast.”

Churchill wasn’t bad on comebacks either. Just after he’d been tossed aside as prime minister in 1945, his beloved wife Clementine told him that the loss “… may well be a blessing in disguise.”

“At the moment,” Churchill responded, “it seems quite effectively disguised.”

At a Washington, D.C., press conference in 1952, Churchill was asked, “Doesn’t it thrill you … to know that every time you make a speech the hall is packed to overflowing?”

Sir Winston: “It is quite flattering, but whenever I feel this way I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.”

Blessedly, Mr. Langworth has also added an appendix of false attributions. Churchill, he writes, “is persistently credited with numerous remarks he never uttered, put in his mouth to make them more interesting.” “Dull, duller, Dulles,” a much-repeated one-liner about the American secretary of state John Foster Dulles, was never said by Churchill, but by Anthony Eden. Another supposed Churchillian zinger, “Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language,” originated with Oscar Wilde. And the phrase “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war” was actually coined by Harold Macmillan in 1958 when he misquoted Churchill’s 1954 comment that “meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”

On one level, “Churchill By Himself” is the sort of book one loves to open at random and read for pure joy. But it is also a remarkable 640-page inculcation into this extraordinary man’s wisdom, insight, outrage, humor and wit. Inculcation? Yes, for as Churchill himself wrote in his 1930 book “My Early Life,” “It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations. … The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts.”

Amen, Mr. Prime Minister, amen.

Washington writer John Weisman’s novels “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at

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