Churchill’s Force of Words Remains Our Finest Hour


I admire everything about Winston Churchill. He was pudgy and eccentric and mad about wearing hats. He was a boozer and a smoker. He was a writer and a warrior, and the most indomitable statesman of a turbulent century. His legendary insults have outlived the people he lavished them on.

He’s also the fellow who held the line for freedom.

What the latest resurgence of interest in World War II fails to remind us is this: While the U.S. waffled on the sidelines, Hitler came frighteningly close to winning his war. Churchill stopped him. And he did it with a weapon of singular force: words.

This Nov. 4-7 in San Diego, Churchill buffs from here and afar will gather to celebrate this commanding figure of the 20th century. I can hardly wait. Winnie is one of the few people I call a hero, no doubt for half the wrong reasons.


Churchill once instructed a general to study military logistics. The contemptuous officer declined. “After all they say that familiarity breeds contempt,” he sniffed. “I would like to remind you,” Churchill replied, “that without a degree of familiarity, we could not breed anything.”

Taken to a U.S. football game, Churchill said he enjoyed the contest. But he asked, “How come you have to have all those committee meetings?”

Looking back on Sir Winston’s life, which I do occasionally, restores my faith in democracy. Sometimes, at just the right time, there is more to the process than campaign contributions, public opinion polls, a likable TV face; more to it than the prevailing silliness of judging leaders by the straightness of their laces.

“I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me,” Churchill said when his habits were discussed.

A conservative, Churchill supported universal health care for Britons and demanded government restraint on business: “We are for private enterprise with all its ingenuity, thrift and contrivance, and we believe it can flourish best within a strict and well-understood system of prevention and correction of abuses.”

He almost always gave better than he got. Lady Astor was said to have remarked, “Winston, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee.” Said he, “Nancy, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”


When he received a complaint about ending a sentence with a preposition, Churchill scrawled a note. “This is the sort of pedantry up with which I will not put.”

But it was Churchill’s wartime oratory that rose to such inspired heights as to seem a force of nature. Tiny Britain was alone in the world facing a superior army of the Third Reich, and Mussolini’s Italy too. Against that, Churchill pitted his lifetime’s devotion to language and his indefatigability. Drawing from each word the pleasure of speaking it, his voice rising in unforgettable, syncopated cadences, Churchill’s speeches to Parliament, and to the public via radio, stiffened and then preserved British resolve.

“If the lull is to end, if the storm is to renew itself,” he said in a taunt to Germany, “London will be ready, London will not flinch .... You do your worst, and we will do our best.”

Then this dapper, doughy man would step onto a London street to be photographed wearing one hat or another, his fingers extended into victory’s V, his eyes twinkling, his jaw clamped on a cigar of such distinctively grand proportions that has become known around the world as The Churchill. In him, Britons found a reason to believe in themselves.

As President Kennedy would later remark, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

Churchill served his country for 60 years and won the Nobel Prize in literature.

Given the current stream of World War II movies, we can be thankful that Hollywood has not lately tried to squeeze Churchill into something so confining as the big screen. It’s better that Americans do their part to keep his memory alive, and thousands do, through magazines, newsletters, conferences and, most of all, by reading his vast and engaging histories. Because in his full glory, Churchill reassures us.


Yes, we will spend most of our lives, it seems, looking down on those politicians who keep the chairs warm from election to election. But when, as he put it, “great causes are on the move,” Churchill is evidence that a democracy can produce someone the world can look up to. And laugh with. And believe in.

“For myself,” he said, “I am an optimist. It does not seem to be much use being anything else.”