Sunday Book Review: Paul Johnson’s “Churchill”

January 25, 2015

book cover johnson churchill

It’s less fashionable in the practice of History these days to study the lives of great men, those individuals who by their words and deeds change the course of the world for better or worse. At one time, History was about these men: Alexander, Caesar, Washington, Napoleon, and others. Then that fashion fell out of favor and, in reaction, the role of Great Men was largely supplanted by the study of “impersonal forces,” those societal and intellectual trends that move History along, individuals being less important, often replaceable. This view was popular with progressive historians of the early to mid-20th century, seeing its extreme in Marxist historians.

But the study of Great Men lives on, in this case in the form of Paul Johnson’s “Churchill,” a brief biography of Sir Winston Churchill, the British statesman, soldier, parliamentarian, and his nation’s Prime Minister during most of the Second World War.

Johnson’s biography of Churchill is of an older school, which seeks not just to analyze its subject, but draw from it moral lessons for the reader. In this manner, it is comparable to Plutarch’s “Lives .” As Johnson writes at the start:

Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable. It is a joy to write his life, and to read about it. None holds more lessons, especially for youth: How to use a difficult childhood. How to seize eagerly on all opportunities, physical , moral, and intellectual. How to dare greatly, to reinforce success, and to put the inevitable failures behind you. And how, while pursuing vaulting ambition with energy and relish, to cultivate also friendship, generosity, compassion, and decency.

Churchill’s life is well-known, and Johnson glosses over the details to cover the important points the reader needs to know: his early childhood with a vaguely disapproving father; his military career , which established the young Churchill as a popular journalist; his political career with his rise to Cabinet rank as First Sea Lord during World War I; his role in laying the foundation for Britain’s welfare state, and his fall from power; his “wilderness” years out of government, when even his fellow party members rarely wanted him around and during which he warned incessantly about the rise of the Nazis in Germany; his return to power when the Nazis started World War II, again as head of the British Navy and then Prime Minister; and his postwar life and career, with one more pass as prime minister, until his death in 1965.

That Johnson can cover all this in just 170 pages while telling a fascinating story and educating the reader is a mark of how good a writer he is. “Churchill,” if it was a joy for him to write, is also a joy for us to read. Johnson’s style is delightful, and he deftly weaves in small details and observations that humanize for us a towering figure who might otherwise be lost behind the noble statues and stern portraits. For example,one that sticks with this reviewer is the revelation that Churchill found happiness in, of all things, bricklaying. So much so, that he tried to join the bricklayer’s union. (He was declined.) Most people know that he was an accomplished painter, but a bricklayer? That such a common, workaday craft should bring satisfaction to a man born in a palace and who dealt regularly with kings and presidents, who commanded his nation’s armed forces in a global war, can’t help but build a bond between reader and subject, reminding us that Winston Churchill, for all the statues and portraits, was still a mortal man.

“Churchill” is not without its weaknesses. A degree of superficiality is inevitable, given the task of compressing so full a life into such a short work. And it touches very lightly on his flaws, such as his Romantic fixations on strategies of dubious worth, for example his attempted defense of Antwerp in the First World War, or his obsession with invading Norway in the Second. A late Victorian in a rapidly changing 20th century, his attitudes toward non-European people were often at best patronizing, sometimes downright bigoted.

But, to dwell on these lacks would be to criticize “Churchill” for not doing what it was never intended to do: to be a “balanced, modern” biography. As much hagiography as biography, Paul Johnson’s goal was to introduce us to the life of one of the greatest men who ever lived and show how it could serve as an example and an inspiration, especially for the young. In this, he has succeeded admirably.

Highest recommendation.

Format note: Churchill is available in both Kindle and softcover formats. I read the Kindle edition and can recall no problems with editing or formatting. And I do get a few pennies from each purchase made through the links in this review.

UPDATE: Catching up on my reading at Power Line, I came across historian Steven Hayward’s post quibbling with the idea of Churchill as “the last lion.” I think what he says about “Great Men” and how they differ from their contemporaries is pertinent to this review:

The tides of history and the scale of modern life have not made obsolete or incommensurate the kind of large-souled greatness we associate with Churchill or Lincoln or George Washington. Of course all of us are powerfully affected by our environment and circumstances, yet the case of Churchill offers powerful refutation to the historicist premise that humans and human society are mostly corks bobbing on the waves of history. Lots of Churchill’s contemporaries were also products of the late Victorian era—many of them from the same schools Churchill attended. But no one else had Chruchill’s courage, insight, and capacities. Why was Churchill virtually alone among his contemporaries? The answer must be that they transcended their environments and transformed their circumstances as only great men can do, and thereby bent history to their will. Which means we are contemplating a fundamental human type. Leo Strauss wrote of Churchill in a private letter to the German philosopher Karl Lowith: “A man like Churchill proves that the possibility of megalophysis [the great-souled man] exists today exactly as it did in the fifth century B.C.” (In other words, as the idea was presented in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.)

Churchill was indeed a “large soul.”

 

 

 


Bookshelf update: Paul Johnson’s “Churchill”

January 11, 2015

Renaissance scholar astrologer

I’ve updated the “What I’m reading” widget to the right to reflect the latest item on the Public Secrets lectern, Paul Johnson’s “Churchill.”

book cover johnson churchill

 

I’m only a few chapters into it, so far, but it’s been an easy to read introduction to and survey of the life of arguably the most important man of the 20th century. This is a short work, as much hagiography as biography, and Johnson is a delight to read. It is available in both Kindle (1) and paperback formats.

PS: Why, yes. This is a shameless bit of shilling on my part. I like getting the occasional gift certificate that comes from people buying stuff via my link. But I still think it’s a good book.

Footnote:
(1) I’m happy to say I’ve found very few typos or formatting errors, so far. These are all too common in Kindle e-books.


The enigma of Barack Obama: how family shapes character

April 25, 2011

One of the great frustrations of the 2008 presidential campaign was the total failure of the establishment media to do anything resembling real journalism regarding the background and history of Barack Obama, the man who would become the Democratic nominee and eventually President. His college records were sealed, his activities while a student in New York and in Chicago as a community organizer were only glanced at, and the people he closely associated with there –Socialist academics, organizers, and former communist terrorists– were dismissed as “people he just knew, nothing special.”

And as for his family background? Well, that became wrapped up and almost impossible to look at dispassionately because of the Birther nonsense that the Obama campaign brilliantly exploited to silence legitimate critics. Whether afraid of being labeled a crank or fearful of having the race card played against them, most critics then and now stay away from looking into those personal, formative experiences that would shape the character and beliefs of a president, preferring to attack him only on policy.

Yet, how can one effectively criticize policy without knowing the man’s character and beliefs, which would tell us not only what he wants to accomplish now, but in the future? To do so is to pick at details while refusing see the grand context that gives them shape and direction.

So, since the major media won’t investigate the President’s background, the fearless Bill Whittle will. This video is part one of a multi-part series looking into the influences on the character and beliefs of President Barack Obama, starting with his parents and grandparents:

And that’s how investigative reporting should be done, neither avoiding sensitive topics nor wallowing in crank conspiracy theories.

I’m looking forward to part two.

RELATED: Some journalists did do extensive work on Obama’s history. Before the election David Freddoso wrote “The Case Against Barack Obama,” which analyzed his rise through the political machines of Cook County, Chicago, and Springfield, seemingly untouched by the mud of Illinois politics. Unfortunately, it came out too late to influence the election. Just last year, journalist Stanley Kurtz published “Radical in Chief,” which is both a political biography of Obama and a history of American Socialism since the 1970s. I reviewed the book a while back and I think it’s crucial to understanding Barack Obama as we go into another election campaign. (And, fair disclosure, I do get a few pennies when the book links are clicked.)

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)


Uncommon Knowledge: Stanley Kurtz

March 27, 2011

A while back I reviewed Stanley Kurtz’s latest book, Radical in Chief, a political biography of Barack Obama and a history of the evolution of American Socialism since the 1970s. It’s an important book, crucial to any real understanding both of the President, himself, and, indirectly, of how derelict the media was in their coverage of Obama’s background†.

Kurtz was recently interviewed by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution for their web program, Uncommon Knowledge. Here’s what they have to say about the subject:

Recent guest  Stanley Kurtz decided to do what the press failed to do – take an honest look at Obama’s politics.   His investigation resulted in Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism. In this episode, Kurtz discusses the many socialist influences in Obama’s life, from his college years to his time as a community organizer, with men such as Bill Ayers, Frank Marshal Davis, and Jeremiah Wright.

In examining Obama’s main mentors, Kurtz begins to see a clear ideology that motivates the President’s disdain for the middle class, take-no-prisoners approach to passing socialized healthcare, reluctance to discuss political theory and desire for, ultimately, a socialist revolution.

The interview is a little over 30 minutes long. Get a cup of tea or coffee, sit back, and relax. I think you’ll find it worthwhile:

†Yeah, I know. They had much more important, world-shaking issues to deal with. Like Sarah Palin’s tanning bed.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)


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