He saw himself as a “wartime” leader chosen by destiny to lead the fight against a deadly enemy. Described by biographers as egocentric and reckless, he bullied and cajoled until getting his own way. His wife was tall and stunningly beautiful. While remaining in the political background, she immersed herself in parenting and charity work. Because of her husband’s controversies, she was often snubbed by other politician’s wives.
As a father, he was said to be demanding. Somewhat peripheral, at times hard on his children but proud of a daughter’s beauty and success. He appointed one ambitious, handsome son-in-law to his inner circle cabinet.
He led a war which saw many casualties. During its most intense eight months of battle, 44,652 citizens lost their lives, including 5626 children. He told families to shelter at home to avoid danger from the air. Many people left the cities for safer places of refuge. He appointed a friend whose primary job was to exhort companies to increase production; in one case, 66 major firms were strongly “requested” to produce decontamination equipment against a pending attack from this invisible enemy.
On one occasion when the leader visited distraught victims, the local priest noted that “—his whole attitude was one of sympathy and grief.” A daughter wrote about “—the power of her father to bring forth courage and strength in the most trying of circumstances.” His public rhetoric was soaring, eloquent and powerfully delivered, words to unify and hearten a weary nation, year after year.
Until the obvious disconnect in this last paragraph, I might have been describing the American President. Instead, I am highlighting only a few biographical revelations about a true “war time leader”, Winston Churchill. My primary source is The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson’s brilliant biographical depiction of the first year of Churchill’s leadership as British Prime Minister (Crown, NY, 2020.) May 10 will mark the 80th anniversary of his assumption of that high office. Churchill wrote of his emotions at that moment:
“I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and all of my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
And what a trial he would immediately face. On his first day in office, the Nazi war machine roared into Holland and Belgium, overwhelming both smaller neighbours and bringing about their rapid surrender. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen. France was Hitler’s next target. Within two weeks the tattered remnants of the weary British army was evacuated from the French channel port of Dunkirk. Would Britain itself be Germany’s next victim?
In the American current war against COVID-19, a campaign led by that other self-styled “war time” President, many lives have already been lost, over 55,000 by latest count. That authentic war-time leader of Britain would soon encounter the Blitz, eight months of intensive German bombing by the Luftwaffe which would result in 44,652 deaths.
As we are currently facing in Western Ontario, Britons were tempted to flee crowded cities for the safety of less populated locales. As Trump has belatedly ordered industries to ramp up production of Personal Protective Equipment, so did Churchill. He quickly appointed his Canadian-born friend, Max Aitken, (Lord Beaverbrook), to head up the task of producing essential war supplies including decontamination equipment against a potential and expected assault by an unseen enemy, not viruses, but German poison gas.
Like the American President, Churchill bullied and cajoled to get his own way. Of course, a primary difference is that one leader knew where he was going. Churchill was single minded in his role of strengthening homeland resolve to win the war, even if, as Larson notes, he initially harboured inner doubts that the United Kingdom could withstand the Blitz and the anticipated land invasion which would follow.
It is these insights into Churchill’s psyche which makes The Splendid and the Vile such a fascinating read. Many biographers had previously documented political and military dimensions of the life of this “Greatest Briton.” Larson’s meticulous research creates a deeper personal portrayal of a man struggling against depression, a lover of cats and brandy. My favourite revelations were of Churchill’s custom of holding war strategy meetings still clad in colourful pyjamas and smoking his ubiquitous cigars.
Larson’s insights also extend to Churchill’s family. Like the American President, he was married to a tall, elegant wife. Clementine (pronounced Clementeen),like Melania, involved herself in parenting—five children in her case … and in charities, heading up Red Cross relief for beleaguered Russia. Churchill had a daughter who, like Ivanka, was both beautiful and ambitious. Sarah Churchill became a renowned actress. Like Trump’s elevation of a son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to his inner circle, Churchill appointed his own son-in law, Duncan Sandys, (married to eldest daughter, Diana) to his cabinet.
Despite these striking similarities between the two “war-time” leaders, that parallel would immediately end once they spoke in public. Where one is at times inarticulate, mundane and meandering, wooden even with his teleprompter, the other rallied his nation with soaring rhetoric. Churchill’s youngest daughter, Mary, wrote in her diary about having witnessed the power of her father “…to bring forth courage and strength in the most trying of circumstances.” But, despite his tendency to bully and cajole to get the job done, Churchill, unlike Trump, could display genuine compassion for his suffering people.
While visiting the English city of Coventry following a devastating attack by 449 Luftwaffe bombers, Churchill was greeted by a local clergyman who noted the statesman’s ”…sympathy and grief” for the destruction of its historic Cathedral, the loss of 568 civilians and for those survivors who now were left to mourn.
We could never hope to duplicate a Churchill to lead us through our current battle. In The Splendid and the Vile, Eric Larson demonstrates how the character and force of brilliant leadership can sustain a nation and its people through a formidable, terrifying crisis, whether it be a Blitz or pandemic. Yet, we too shall prevail.