- - Monday, February 2, 2015



By Boris Johnson

Riverhead, $27.95, 384 pages

Winston Churchill’s reputation for intellect, industry and obduracy so precedes him that almost nothing now written about this blunderbuss of a man any longer surprises us. His paintings now sell for over 1 million British pounds? Sure. He watched the same movie (1941’s “Lady Hamilton”) 17 times at the height of World War II? OK. He killed three men at point blank range in one day while fighting in the Sudan? Of course. Such a constellation of anecdotes still drives the Anglo-American obsession with this British bulldog.

Although the mythology of Winston Churchill is long established, men still study Churchill and attempt to write about him in new ways. Dozens of books on him are published each year, but few attract general notice. Yet not every writer is Boris Johnson, the raconteur Fleet Street editor turned mayor of London. Confessing to a reverence for his subject that has burned since boyhood, the mayor has written a book on Churchill which is not the most comprehensive or scholarly detailed book on the great avatar of 20th century Western Civilization, but may be the most fun.

Undoubtedly it was Churchill’s prescience in comprehending the Nazi threat, and subsequently fighting it, that has anchored his stature as a great man. Johnson hammers this theme early and often, using in one place a train metaphor to prove his point:

“Let us think of Hitler’s story as one of those huge and unstoppable double decker expresses that he had commissioned, howling through the night with its cargo of German settlers. Think of that locomotive, whizzing toward final victory. Then think of some kid climbing the parapet of the railway bridge and dropping the crowbar that jams the points and sends the whole enterprise for a gigantic burton — a mangled, hissing heap of metal. Winston Churchill was the crowbar of destiny.”

Mr. Johnson does a fine job restating Churchill’s importance to the modern world — for example, his anti-communist stance, or his role in the post-World War I partition of the Middle East (Iraq is, Winston says, an “ungrateful volcano”). But passages like the one above signify the great strength of “The Churchill Factor” — Johnson’s splendid prose. His narrative voice resembles an art gallery docent’s, as he explains vignettes from the prime minister’s life in captivating detail, using words uncommon even to writers: “cuspidor,” “demotic,” “apercu,” “revanchism,” “sibilant.” Such jaunt gives a special layer of coloration to a man who was himself sui generis. Take this description of Churchill’s bedroom, from which he gave dictation: “There is a glass of what looks like a weak whiskey and soda on the bedside table, a marmalade cat on the coverlet, and he is sitting up in bed wearing a red silk kimono and a fierce expression, with his graying strands of hair askew. He champs his cigar and you realize he is saying something to you.”

“The Churchill Factor” is not only concerned with Churchill’s war and postwar years. Mr. Johnson takes some time to credit Churchill for a stance on entitlements which is probably anathema to some of Churchill’s most uncompromising defenders. Churchill was one of the earliest proponents of the welfare state; as a young MP, he pushed for unemployment insurance, minimum wage laws, and other paternalistic government programs. He also first hired William Beveridge, the brain behind the postwar welfare state in the United Kingdom. Writes Mr. Johnson, “Together with Lloyd George, [Churchill] deserves the title of Founder of the Welfare State.” Some of Churchill’s most passionate defenders are American conservatives, and it would be interesting to read more of how their view of him squares with this fact. After all, many conservatives would insist whether the architecture of government aid has slowly helped to undo the civilization Churchill fought so hard to save.

Critics on the other side of the Atlantic have accused Boris of pumping too much of his own intellectual self-aggrandizement into the pages. They’re right. “The Churchill Factor” is loaded with classical references — megalopsychia, Homer, Elysium — which reflect Mr. Johnson’s training at Oxford as a classicist. Here and there we are offered pithy political nuggets that might seem alternately profound or platitudinous, such as this Thucydidean observation on public life: “The beauty and riddle in studying the motives of any politician is in trying to decide what is idealism and what is self-interest; and often we are left to conclude that the answer is a mixture of the two.” At a certain point, Mr. Johnson is clearly writing about the indispensable man of victory out of his own self-aggrandizement, but Mr. Johnson’s voluptuous prose and passionate affection for his subject makes the audience a willing Dante to his Virgil.

David Wilezol is the co-author, with William Bennett, of “Is College Worth It?” (Thomas Nelson, 2013).

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