Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Is Newt Gingrich America's Churchill?

Debate performances, rising polls recall Britain's turn to a leader once spurned.

The thought startles.

Is Newt Gingrich America's Winston Churchill?

The former Speaker has repeatedly dazzled in the ongoing series of GOP presidential debates. He is "the adult in the room," the man Republicans keep saying they would like to see on the debate stage with Barack Obama.

The latest polls (Wall Street Journal, CBS, and Marist) have him vaulting into a tie with Mitt Romney behind Herman Cain or leapfrogging Cain to barely trail Romney. This video of a Frank Luntz focus group that appeared on Sean Hannity's TV show following a recent GOP debate is typical of the changing reaction to the Georgian. Gingrich is a long way from the low single digits he registered at the beginning of the campaign.

But Churchill? America's Churchill?

There are all manner of people -- including some conservatives -- who would faint dead away at the comparison.

They shouldn't.

First, Mr. Churchill.

One of the ironies of history that is that those figures who have morphed from flesh-and-blood reality to marbleized icons always seem to lose their humanity. This is true, in fact, of most people. Great-Aunt Sally whose habits or manner or outrageous behavior here and there proved so infuriating in life becomes the iconic family elder after passing into eternity, her descendants fondly telling Great-Aunt Sally stories and holding her up to the youngest generation as a family role model.

So it is with public figures, and so it was with Winston Churchill.

In his childhood his father thought him a major disappointment, the father himself a star -- an infuriating star -- to his colleagues in British politics. When Lord Randolph Churchill died -- allegedly of syphilis -- his once brilliant political career was cut short, leaving behind the mystery of whether he would have ever been prime minister as so many had thought was certain.

Son Winston, idolizing his father, picked up the torch with the support of his famously beautiful yet distant American mother, Jenny Jerome Churchill. Selecting the military and journalism as starting points, the young Winston traveled to outposts of the British Empire on the strength of his mother's connections and his late father's name. While doing so he read voraciously, soaking up everything from Gibbon to Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare and more as he raced from one adventure to another in Cuba, India, Egypt and the Sudan. Brashly, he ran for Parliament and lost. Immediately getting an assignment to cover the Boer War, he shipped out to South Africa -- where an attack on a British troop train and his subsequent capture and dramatic escape from a POW camp made him famous and a hero. By 1900, at the ripe age of 26, Winston Churchill was elected to Parliament.
Over the course of his political life -- some 55 years from that 1900 election -- Churchill was at the center or near the center of repeated and divisive political controversies. From the Irish question to the Dardanelles and Gallipoli to India, the abdication of King Edward VIII and Munich, his contemporaries were all too frequently not admirers, to say the least, with harshly negative assessments over time attaching themselves to Churchill's reputation as barnacles encrust a ship. He made enemies and worse, alienated friends. Among the descriptives of the day, biographer William Manchester records that he was seen as "impatient, arrogant and unfeeling… difficult," an "opportunist" whose "transitory convictions" always "inspired suspicion," a man who was "jaywalking through life." Politically he was thought incapable of party loyalty, stubborn and incapable of judging men, "easily taken in by quacks and charlatans."
Talented? Absolutely. Brilliant? Certainly. A prolific writer over his lifetime he turned out 56 books, including fiction but mostly history and biography. He was, with considerable practice, a superb speech giver. Yet somehow all this combined to have one newspaper editorial describe him as a "genius without judgment," with one rival, fellow Conservative Stanley Baldwin, sniping that Churchill had a "hundred-horsepower brain" without the ability to harness it. Said another: "Mr. Churchill carries great guns, but his navigation is uncertain. His effect on men is one of interest and curiosity, not of admiration and loyalty. His power is the power of gifts, not character. Men watch him, but do not follow him. He beguiles their reason, but never warms their emotions." The best one friend could do was sum up Churchill by saying: "Winston was often right, but when he was wrong, well, my God."

By the time he reached his sixties he was thought to be politically finished. He had already served as "minister for the colonies and for trade, home affairs, finance, and all three of the armed services." A book emerged called The Tragedy of Winston Churchill in which the facts of his many controversies, particularly his controversial strategy on the Dardanelles in World War I, were deliberately misrepresented, the findings of fact that exonerated Churchill in the incident willfully ignored in order to pronounce him a "brilliant failure, of whom it has been repeatedly said that he secretly despises those who pass him on the road to office and power." His Parliament peers "detested him and everything he represented." Precisely because in the course of all those jobs he had attracted so much controversy he was seen as "an erratic genius…utterly unreliable"; someone to whom the British public had wised up, a figure from the past.

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