Bush As Churchill?
Are comparisons between George W. Bush and Winston Churchill justified?
March 3, 2003
A future great democratic war leader did badly at school — and was under-estimated, even despised by his own father. This was all the more stunning since that father was a prominent national conservative leader who had held the great offices of state.
Despite these poor odds, the son beat the odds, as well as the doubts of his own father. In fact, he went on to rally his people in a time of national catastrophe — and then lead them to victory in a far-off war.
Who are we talking about? It was, of course, Winston Churchill. But the story line may also apply to U.S. President George W. Bush. And yet, the parallels should not be taken too far.
It is the contrasts between the two men rather than their parallels that truly define them. It is certainly true that Churchill, even more than Bush, was an indifferent, even poor student at school.
Superficially, Churchill was by far the worse educated of the two. Bush gained degrees from both Yale University and the Harvard Business School. He is, amazingly enough, the first president ever to have graduated from both Harvard and Yale.
Winston Churchill never went to university at all. And, as British historian David Cannadine points out in his recently acclaimed study, “In the Shadow of Churchill,” at least into his 40s, the Great Winston appears to have harbored strong feelings of intellectual insecurity, if not inferiority, about this.
None of this hurt his own nation. In 1940, as the British Army was swept off the continent of Europe and France collapsed before the Nazi onslaught, Mr. Churchill rallied the British people with great speeches that have become the stuff of legend. He went on to lead them to victory in one of the greatest wars in their history.
In 2001, Mr. Bush also rallied the American nation in the wake of the September 11, after al Qaeda terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, mauled the Pentagon and killed 3,000 people.
Here is one difference between the two men: Churchill’s words were entirely his own. Mr. Bush’s were crafted — as all presidents’ speeches since Franklin Roosevelt have in large part been — by speechwriters. But there is no doubt he put his stamp on them.
And the 9/11 catastrophe was followed within three months by the routing of al Qaeda from their snug mountain haven in eastern Afghanistan. And it also yielded the toppling of the Taliban regime in Kabul that had protected them.
Having said all this, however, is to take the parallels between the two men as far as they probably go. Indeed, rather than being Churchill Redux, as his many current admirers claim, it is more accurate to see George W. Bush as an Anti-Churchill, and someone from whom the Great Winston in crucial regards might well have recoiled.
Churchill may not have gone to university — but he was certainly one of the most remarkable intellects in modern political history. He was also widely read and fascinated by the nuts and bolts of technology — especially the application of science and technology to war.
He was also, as the British historian George Dangerfield noted as early as 1935 in his classic, “The Strange Death of Liberal England,” one of the greatest administrators of public offices in the long history of the British Liberal Party. For example, he performed the Herculean labor of galvanizing a dozing and complacent British Royal Navy for its war with Germany in 1914.
He single-handedly pushed through such only seemingly trifling matters as the switch from 13.5 inch to 15-inch naval guns as the primary armament for British battleships: And he also saw through the conversion of the Royal Navy from primary dependence on coal-burning engines to oil turbines.
He was even the driving force in the development of the tank, a crucial war winner for the Allies on the Western Front — and he helped pioneer naval aviation.
While these issues may seem trivial in hindsight, they required the skills of a great strategist and determined bureaucratic infighter.
Mr. Bush is certainly a high-tech enthusiast, given his support for pouring financial and technological resources into the anti-ballistic missile program.
But he has shown none of the curiosity or detailed grasp of scientific and technological issues displayed by Winston Churchill.
His decision to limit stem cell research alone is already gravely eroding U.S. medical-biological global leadership — and benefits Western European and Asian nations.
Nor does President Bush have any of the hands-on experience of war, both small and great that Churchill showed. Bush rode out the Vietnam War comfortably in the U.S. National Guard, flying fighter planes within the United States.
In sharp contrast, Churchill eagerly sought out combat and heroism both as soldier and reporter in virtually every colonial war of the 1890s. In getting his military commissions, he often went to great lengths and extreme personal risks in order to convince his potential commanders that he was a man worth having in their contingent.
This is all the more astonishing as even his position of being a son of great privilege — his father Lord Randolph was once the leader of the House of Commons — proved not to be enough initially to convince these commanders to take him on. Eventually, he served with distinction for several months as a regimental commander in the trenches of the Western Front in World War I.
But perhaps the greatest — and most overlooked — contrast between the two men is in their personal lives and spiritual outlooks.
George W. Bush, by his own admission, was a very heavy drinker who went cold turkey and became a born-again fundamentalist Christian.
Churchill — as most revealingly shown in his early and neglected novel “Savrola” — was never a Christian at all, but a curious and pessimistic skeptic.
“We all are all worms,” he told an astonished 19-year-old Violet Bonham Carter in 1905. “But I do believe that I am a glow-worm.”
Close friends and observers like the late Sir John “Jock” Colville stated he always believed in his own lucky star. He truly developed a sense of destiny only in the dark, heroic days of 1940.
Moreover, Winston Churchill was also a heavy drinker all his life. On the one hand, as his recent biographer, the late Roy Jenkins, perceptively pointed out, he was a “sipper” of his brandy and other refreshments rather than a “guzzler.”
On the other hand, there is the repeated testimony of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, his Chief of the Imperial General Staff for three and a half years to victory in World War II. According to him, Churchill was often far the worse for wear in late night dinner and drinking sessions that went on to the small hours of the morning.
Certainly, as Ray Jenkins repeatedly documents, Churchill regarded teetotalers and religious prudes with contempt. That would not have augured well for his approval of George W. Bush — had the two of them been yoked together.
Churchill was also notable for rising above party and political prejudice as a national war leader. His Great Coalition of 1940-45 still ranks as arguably the greatest of all British war-time administrations.
Many of its best talents came from the opposition Labour Party which at that time was so far left it would horrify current Third Way Democrats just to think about it.
The Bush Administration, by contrast, has recruited few Democrats or even Independents to join a Cabinet notable for its lack of administrative grasp and intellectual brilliance even in the year and a half since “9/11”.
In addition, Winston Churchill’s moral and political courage were as great as his physical bravery.
He told the British people when he assumed their leadership that he had nothing to offer them but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” (He actually delivered a lot better than that.)
President Bush, in contrast, pushed through a whopping $1.35 trillion tax cut before “9/11” and spent money like water after it. Under his stewardship, the healthy $100 billion plus annual surplus he inherited has been converted into a $300 billion annual budget deficit, the largest in U.S. history.
Yet, he has not uttered a word about either increasing taxes or necessary hardships or sacrifices to be born by anyone outside the military.
Finally, Churchill won World War II above all not by his direct military direction of the British war effort, which was often disastrously incompetent, but by his brilliant diplomatic and strategic sense.
He did more to maintain and hold together Britain’s Grand Alliance with the United States and the Soviet Union than any other leader in all three countries.
George Bush, for his part, has not managed to preserve the great “wall-to-wall” international alliance that rallied around him after “9/11” — despite all the help from Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Astonishingly, President Bush appears amazingly unconcerned even at shattering the venerable Atlantic Alliance — and defying Russia and China. He even appears to relish going into Iraq virtually alone, save for an increasingly isolated British Prime Minister Tony Blair at his side.
Churchill famously said that the only thing worse than having to wage war with allies was having to wage it without them. Mr. Bush, in remarkable contrast, appears liberated — and even exhilarated — by the very prospect Churchill so feared.
With all this in mind, it is therefore quite surprising that so many of the elegies to Mr. Bush in the U.S. media since “9/11” have dwelled on his supposed “Churchillian” qualities when in truth they often are anything but.
This not only says something about the standards of historical education among America’s 21st-century punditry and electronic chattering class. But it also could have significant implications for how the United States will fare when Mr. Bush plunges it into a real war.