Churchill: The Unexpected Hero, by Paul Addison
I have to admit that like many people, I tend to find Winston Churchill a pretty compelling person and a historical person well worth appreciating for his moral courage and his eloquence . In being a late bloomer and longtime partisan politician who became an excellent war leader with a gift for well-written speeches that have proven to be memorable, I think of Winston Churchill as being a similar sort of person to Abraham Lincoln–the author does not make that comparison, but it makes sense. This book is a short one, only about 250 pages or so, but it manages to stay focused on the issue of what made Winston Churchill seem like a failure early in life and what made him a great leader in World War II. He seems like he was a difficult man to get along with, but his energy and wisdom and ability to inspire and encourage made him a fantastic war leader for all of his flaws and imperfections, and the author is right, I think, in viewing the complexity and imperfection of Churchill as a reason why he is still considered a hero today in our decidedly unheroic times.
The book is a fairly conventional biographical narrative in that it begins with a discussion of the background of the author’s family–especially important here given the class-bound nature of England, which both benefited and hurt Churchill as a member of the family of the famous Duke of Marlborough and also a half-American with possibly some Seneca blood according to family legend. The author spends a good deal of time talking about Churchill’s distance from his parents and from the way that he was shaped by his educational background and how his character was largely consistent throughout his life–he was always ambitious, driven, with a wild imagination and powerful intuition, suffused with a love of history, and entirely heedless to rules and traditions. The full political career of Churchill is given an examination to show the inconsistencies as well as the underlying patterns that the people of his own time were unable to see because they were too infuriated by his bumptious banner and fierce wit. Churchill is also given full credit here as a leader who was best in war–both in World War I and World War II, but one who has never lacked either enemies or defenders. He truly was a great man, if not a perfect one, and this book certainly sits in the “liberal” camp of his defenders.
Whether or not you appreciate this approach as a reader will depend to great extent on what you bring to the table. If you come to this book fond of Winston Churchill’s most famous speeches and appreciative of his role as Prime Minister during World War II, you will probably enjoy this book. If you approach this book from either the point of view of hero worship or hostility, there will likely be less to appreciate. The author gives thoughtful commentary that largely exculpates Churchill regarding the major mistakes in Gallipoli but that also points out that sometimes it was those who were assisting him and helping him out that spared him from some of the embarrassments his rashness could have gotten him into had he been less fortunate, and comments that his unpopularity among many party leaders made him a convenient fall guy when things went wrong because of his tendency to take so much credit and be so much a figure of genius that other people were highly jealous of and easily dissatisfied with, especially among those who were his rivals for the highest offices. Overall this is a great book that encourages the reader to read even more about Churchill and his life and words.
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