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Finally, Winston Churchill’s Time Has Arrived

November 3, 2019

Books have been an essential part of my world since childhood.  While most of my reading centers around history, biographies, and great fiction from the likes of John le Carré, I am much aware of how many great covers are yet to be opened.  That fact was driven home Thursday night as I waited for the kids in the neighborhood to arrive for Halloween.

Watching a recorded interview from Book TV (C-SPAN) I found myself asking how, at the age of 57, and having read about world leaders for decades, I had not once opened a book about Winston Churchill.  In short order Andrew Roberts, the author of Churchill: Walking With Destiny had made an impression so strong about my lapse in judgment that I had an order from Amazon placed within minutes.

My Churchill knowledge has come from the larger overall books of British history or the grand accounts from the likes of Doris Kearns Goodwin as she wrote about life inside FDR’s White House during World War II.  The totality of his life, however, is not something I have mined in a book.   But Roberts convinced me that not only now was this the time, but his book the vehicle. The reviews about Robert’s work have underscored why that idea has many merits.

Such is the challenge facing any biographer of Churchill: how to weigh in the balance a life filled with so much triumph and disaster, adulation and contempt. The historian Andrew Roberts’s insight about Churchill’s relation to fate in “Churchill: Walking With Destiny” comes directly from the subject himself. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny,” Churchill wrote of that moment in May 1940 when he achieved the highest office. But the story Roberts tells is more sophisticated and in the end more satisfying. “For although he was indeed walking with destiny in May 1940, it was a destiny that he had consciously spent a lifetime shaping,” Roberts writes, adding that Churchill learned from his mistakes, and “put those lessons to use during civilization’s most testing hour.” Experience and reflection on painful failures, while less glamorous than a fate written in the stars, turn out to be the key ingredients in Churchill’s ultimate success.

If Churchill’s entire life was a preparation for 1940, “the man and the moment only just coincided.” He was 65 years old when he became prime minister and had only just re-entered front-line politics after a decade out of office. It would be like Tony Blair returning to 10 Downing Street today, ready to put lessons learned during the Iraq war to work. Had Hitler delayed by a few years, Roberts suggests, Churchill would surely have been away from front-rank politics too long to “make himself the one indispensable figure.”

Roberts tells this story with great authority and not a little panache. He writes elegantly, with enjoyable flashes of tartness, and is in complete command both of his sources and the vast historiography. For a book of a thousand pages, there are surprisingly no longueurs. Roberts is admiring of Churchill, but not uncritically so. Often he lays out the various debates before the reader so that we can draw different conclusions to his own. Essentially a conservative realist, he sees political and military controversies through the lens of the art of the possible. Only once does he really bristle, when Churchill says of Stalin in 1945, “I like that man.” “Where was the Churchill of 1931,” he laments, “who had denounced Stalin’s ‘morning’s budget of death warrants’?”

Amazon delivers on Sundays, so……………..


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