Churchill, up close, by an old warhorse

November 11, 2001|By Paul Duke | By Paul Duke,Special to the Sun

Churchill, by Roy Jenkins. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,002 pages. $40.

Really now, do we need yet another fat biography of Winston Churchill? Can anything possibly be added to the hundreds of books written about the 20th century's grand old giant?

This latest British offering certainly has its deficiencies. Some of it is ponderous going and much of the material is recycled stuff amply covered by others. Moreover, the author has an annoying tendency to ramble and drift into irrelevancies.

Having said that, this is a splendid addition to Churchillian lore, a chronicle chock-full of revealing personal anecdotes, delightful wartime vignettes and fascinating new insights into the critical 1939-45 years.

Roy Jenkins, a high ranking government official for many years, was the ideal man to take a fresh look at the legendary World War II leader. As a young Laborite member of Parliament, he observed Churchill close up during the final days of his postwar Conservative party leadership. And, like his subject, Jenkins is a celebrated historian in his own right as the author of 19 books, including a masterful biography of another British great, William Gladstone.

Now an elder statesman at 80, Jenkins skillfully pulls together the varied strands of Churchill's career, giving us a sweeping and penetrating portrait. There was the energetic lust for life, the commanding exercise of power, the intellectual flow of ideas and the unfailingly brash conviction. Yet, gifted as he was, the old lion was a man of surprising contrasts.

Although he was the West's principle warrior for democracy in withstanding Nazi aggression, he was much less dedicated to giving freedom to those clamoring to leave Britain's colonial empire. He considered himself a brilliant strategist, but his military aides sometimes despaired over his stubborn and impulsive notions of warfare. He inspired millions with his hearty brand of leadership, but found it difficult to manage his own cabinet. He brimmed with energy, but also was afflicted with spasms of lassitude.

Most of all, though, Jenkins believes the paradoxical qualities of self-centeredness and self-confidence were the ingredients that made Churchill a genuine man of destiny, "determined to go straight to the top." The signs were all there at a tender age, having inherited from his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a restless passion for public life. By 30 he was an established writer, having published five books; by 31 he was serving as a senior minister.

His vaulting ambition attracted both admirers and critics, one of whom said: "He drinks too much, talks too much and does no thinking worthy of the name." That was strictly a minority view, however, because Churchill soon gained a reputation as a Tory social reformer, promoting such measures as unemployment insurance and minimum wages that later formed the basis for much of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

As Jenkins says, no one was better qualified or better prepared to be prime minister. He was exhilarated by the atmosphere of crisis when he succeeded Neville Chamberlain in 1939 and set about to rally his countrymen to resist an invasion threat. "He thought the central objective was to get the government to stand up and fight," declares Jenkins. Another goal was to bring America into the war, which is why there was "a moment of unalloyed joy when he heard the news of Pearl Harbor."

The war years obviously were Churchill's finest hours, mainly because he used all of his oratorical talents to evoke "a euphoria of irrational belief in ultimate victory." Thus, concludes Jenkins, for all of the flaws and idiosyncrasies, his genius, tenacity and wide-ranging abilities made him "the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing St."

Churchill, of course, was never modest about his place in history, jocularly telling associates he would secure his niche by writing a good part of it himself. On one occasion, according to Jenkins, his 6-year-old grandson approached while he was working and asked: "Grandpa, is it true you are the greatest man in the world?" To which Churchill responded: "Yes, and now bugger off."

Paul Duke, a senior commentator for Public Broadcasting Service, covered the Kennedy campaign in 1960 as a political reporter for the Wall Street Journal. For 20 years he moderated Washington Week in Review, the longest running news program on PBS. He has worked as a reporter at the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and NBC and has written widely for newspapers and magazines.

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