“If you want a friend in Washington,” counseled Harry Truman, “get a dog.”
While it’s not clear the plain-spoken Missourian (who gave his dog to his White House physician) said exactly those words, he would have recognized the sentiment when he left Washington in January 1953, one of the least popular presidents in history. Trailed by approval ratings in the 20s because of the unpopular and stalemated Korean War, he and Bess headed back to Independence, and friends—at least of the Washington variety—seemed in short supply. Incredibly by today’s standards, they drove across country in Harry’s Chrysler New Yorker, without a single Secret Service agent, assistant or reporter in tow.
For Winston Churchill, the English-speaking world’s iconic statesman of the last hundred years, friendship was an essential element of both public and private life—which, when combined with magnanimity, became central to statesmanship itself. His concept of friendship looked back to the Aristotelian ideal of “sunaisthesis,” or shared vision.
That was a key element of one of Churchill’s most important books, his massive biography of his great ancestor the First Duke of Marlborough. (Political scientist Harry Jaffa called it “the greatest historical work written in our century, an inexhaustible mine of political wisdom and understanding.”) In Churchill’s telling, the duke’s friendship with Prince Eugene of Savoy sustained the alliance that in the early 1700s defeated the continental aggressor of their day, King Louis XIV, just as Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt would do two centuries later.
Churchill’s own friendships were deep and varied, from actors (Charlie Chaplin) to poets (Rupert Brooke) to politicians (Lord Beaverbrook and Brendan Bracken) to scientists (Frederick Lindemann) and, most crucially, foreign leaders (FDR and Ike). The importance of friendship was epitomized by his decades-long devotion to The Other Club, a dining and political salon he created in 1911 with his then-fellow Liberal David Lloyd George and a brilliant Conservative M.P., F.E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead. Churchill attended over 300 of its dinners, where debate was always both cordial and lively. The Club’s most famous mantra was “Nothing in the rules or intercourse of the Club shall interfere with the rancor or asperity of party politics.”
Those club members and Churchill’s other friends were eclectic, and each tolerated the others’ faults. (His wife Clementine noted, “Winston is always ready to be accompanied by those with considerable imperfections.”) But his loyalty was unbroken—Birkenhead said Churchill “never in his life failed a friend.” And the loyalty of those friends was critical to sustaining Churchill in No. 10 Downing Street in Britain’s darkest hour in May 1940.
The contrast to today’s Washington, epitomized by the bitter and divisive Kavanaugh hearings, is acute. Friendship and magnanimity seem nonexistent, and the comity epitomized by Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan—described in journalist Chris Matthews’ Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked—is a distant memory.
The opportunity for friendship that existed when members of Congress and their families lived in DC disappeared with the now standard Monday-Thursday schedule and the acclaim that comes from sleeping in a Capitol Hill office. Good luck to an incumbent who admits to weekends in a home in Washington or runs on working across the aisle. The Republican Capitol Hill Club and its National Democratic counterpart are, though only blocks apart physically, a very long way from the bipartisanship of The Other Club.
After being unceremoniously rejected by the British people in the summer of 1945, Churchill devoted himself to his Nobel Prize-winning history of World War II, still an essential account of the greatest of all conflicts. Each volume begins with what he called “The Moral of the Work”, which included “In Victory, Magnanimity.”
For Churchill, friendship and civil discourse extended across party lines. When he was reported to have said “An empty taxi drew up to No. 10 Downing Street and Mr. Attlee got out,” Churchill replied that the Labor leader was “an honorable and gallant gentleman… I would never make such a remark.” He collaborated with Attlee (his main rival from 1940 until Churchill’s retirement 15 years later), most famously in the World War II coalition, but also when appropriate in more normal times.
When Churchill returned as prime minister in 1951, he retained the popular elements of the British welfare state, commenting, “Four-fifths of both parties agree on four-fifths of what should be done and we all sink or swim together on our perilous voyage into the unknown.” Attlee in turn movingly eulogized Churchill after his death in 1965, describing himself as “an old opponent and a colleague, but always a friend, of Sir Winston Churchill.”
Victory resounded at campaign headquarters around the country on November 6, but the winners might wish to remember Churchill’s example of magnanimity. They would also do well to moderate the partisan squabbling and embrace the friendship—with adversaries as well as allies— that was an essential element of Churchill’s long and honorable life.
Lee Pollock is a Chicago-based writer, historian and public speaker on the life and times of Sir Winston Churchill.