Friday, January 30, 2015



This weekend marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill. In the past half-century, Churchill has come to be appreciated as the great figure he was. But he was also a politician, and his life and career are full of worthwhile lessons for other politicians. Here are seven of them that bear consideration for the modern crew of political would-be leaders who took the stage in Iowa and elsewhere this weekend:

1) Personal experience matters – because it is the indispensable key to credibility. People forget that when Churchill ascended to the prime ministership in 1940, he was a combat veteran of three wars. That matters a great deal. The best way you can establish trust with the people is through shared experience and an ability to relate to their challenges not at a distance, but with an understanding borne from direct knowledge.

2) Work on your oratory. Churchill didn't begin as a natural - he was born with a lisp that only got better through practice. Eloquence is sometimes a birthright but it can be squandered if you do not have the core belief in what you are saying. Believe your own words, make yourself believe, and project that belief, and others will follow. If your goal requires a path your fellow citizens don't want to take, find another damned road to it.

3) Don't be afraid to fight your own party. Churchill spent a great deal of his public career in rebellion against, or in opposition to, his own party. It actually does matter if one stands athwart history yelling stop. No one remembers, or cares about, the great compromisers. Don't be afraid to buck the leaders of your own party - Chamberlain and Baldwin were fellow Tories, after all. Get the big things right and when you are right, don't give in even if all your allies are rushing in the other direction.

4) Never give up. Never, never, never. Churchill's life included as much rejection and failure as it did success. Most know about his ten years in the wilderness. Fewer know that his proposals for marriage were rejected by multiple women, that he failed the entrance exam to the Royal Military Academy twice, that he lost five elections including his first. After he fought against abdication tooth and nail, and took it in the face for it, most thought that his career was over. It didn't stop him.

5) History matters. Not just knowing it to judge the future, but writing it to control what the present believes about the future.  History is kind to the man who writes it.Take the long view. It is because he understood history that Churchill saw the Nazis and the Cold War coming before others did. History remembers him for his ability to keep focused on the big things that mattered, not the spin cycle of the day.

6) Have fun along the way. Churchill, like many great leaders, suffered bouts of depression, but he fought the black dog off like a man. He enjoyed a good drink and cigar and never let despair or weariness overtake him. In times of incredible stress for the nation, he understood the need to personally keep his own spirit unbowed. In the war rooms in London, they make a point of noting Churchill’s knowledge that the bunker was really not at all safe from attack – that a bomb from above, at any moment, could shatter the whole thing. It’s not that he didn’t care about this in a foolhardy way. It’s that he was not afraid. The Germans mocked this by painting “A Havana cigar for Churchill” on their bombs.  He was still puffing away when the Third Reich went to ash.

7) If you are going to lead your nation, have an idea about why your nation exists, what it is for, and what it means. All else flows from that.

One postscript: It is always worth sharing one of my favorite anecdotes about Churchill, which concerns his chance meeting late in life with Brigitte Bardot.  “When I was eight years old and heard you on the radio, you frightened me,“ said Brigitte, “But now you seem rather cute, considering you’re a legend.” Cute was not a word people normally used to describe Churchill to his face! The great orator remained speechless. “What are you doing in Nice?” Brigitte asked, in order to fill the silence. “Painting,” replied Churchill. “You are an actress, and I am a painter. We have art in common.” “My father bought one of your landscapes,” said Brigitte. “I don’t sell my paintings.” “Well, then your friends do. The painting my father bought has a hill, a parasol pine in the foreground and the sea in the background. Do you remember it?” “And on the right a broom bush in flower?” “Yes. Do you like to paint?” “I love painting. But I shall never go down in history with Cézanne.” “You know, my films are not nearly as good as your paintings. And I never won a war.” “That is no great loss,” Churchill concluded.”

Churchill can be seen in this picture, with Bardot in the background.  She is smiling, and so is he, as any man would in a similar circumstance. He earned that smile. Perhaps that is an eighth lesson.

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