Monday, November 25, 2013

Leaders Then and Now

For the past couple of months I have been reading the last volume of the Manchester biography of Winston Churchill and Churchill's own History of the English Speaking Peoples simultaneously.   If you have the stamina they should best be read together.    Who else would attempt to explain history in a coherent manner from Roman times to the end of the Victorian age in four volumes but Churchill?   Manchester, in this volume, chronicles Churchill from the beginning of WWII to the end of his life in one big book.

If you want to know how many times Sir Winston burped in 1943 you can probably find it in the Last Lion - the detail is comprehensive.   I did not read the earlier volumes and thus cannot be sure whether this kind of detail was a result of Manchester's writing style or of his ultimate collaborator (the last volume was finished after Manchester died).    But at times the style can be mind-numbingly boring - even for a Churchill fan like me.   I think the book is at its best when he talks about Churchill's work in Parliament and especially of his Fulton Missouri speech.   There are some great quotes (Clement Atlee was described as a "sheep in sheep's clothing.")   What you find is that Churchill could be brilliant and petulant at the same time.  That being said, he had a tremendous capacity for conscientious work and clear thinking.   While he was wrong often he was also right about a lot of things.

The History of the English Speaking Peoples is a survey of great breadth.  It gets some of the history wrong (for example, I think his appreciation for Hamilton is a bit distorted) but on the whole he paints a picture on why even with a very bloody political history staffed by an interesting group of characters, there is something exceptional about our shared history.  In spite of the President's comments about lots of exceptional histories in the world - I think Churchill makes a good case that our history is indeed unique.

What I was struck with most was the comparisons of Churchill (and his descriptions of the great leaders in his history and Manchester's even) with leaders of today.   Clearly, Churchill thought he should be taken seriously and had a sense that what he was doing was important.   But the difference with today's leaders is that he also thought it was a great idea to actually accomplish something.   He could be a bitter partisan but at the same time he figured out how to actually get things done.  He tried to be at the center of things but he also tried to work collaboratively.  Churchill understood the beginnings of polling but he was never driven in his leadership decisions to be guided by polls.    Can you think of any US political leader who is not driven to consult the Ouija board of polling?

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