Boris Johnson’s Churchill Man Crush

As a public servant and man of letters, London’s mayor is splendidly equipped to take the measure of the 20th Century’s most famous and certainly most eloquent prime minister.


He was a maverick politician who chafed at party constraints; a colorful figure ever conscious of his image; and a writer of rare gifts who earned a fortune from journalism and history. He was renowned for his wit, disarming his critics with unfailing humor. And he scarcely bothered to hide his chief ambition: to lead his country as prime minister.

The above is an accurate description of both the subject and the author of The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson, a full-throated celebration of human greatness and perhaps the best (and certainly the funniest) short introduction to Churchill yet written. The prose fairly shimmers on the page. It’s the literary equivalent of one of those glossy British documentaries, with a telegenic onscreen presenter standing before historic sites and suavely addressing the viewer with epigrammatic phrases. (Come to think of it, Johnson has made a few of those.) Readers will surely agree with Johnson that Churchill “is the resounding human rebuttal to all Marxist historians who think history is the story of vast and impersonal economic forces … one man can make all the difference.”

Johnson’s achievement is all the more remarkable when one considers his day job as mayor of London (he slips in a few amusing observations sure to please the tourist board, such as, “It is not raining in London 94 percent of the time.) Halfway through his second term, Johnson has enjoyed a charmed life. An Oxford-trained classicist, he was elected president of the Oxford Union, a post filled by several future premiers. After a high-profile stint as the Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, he went on to the editorship of the Spectator and a seat in parliament. He served in the shadow cabinet until a sex scandal forced him out (one characteristic he definitely does not share with Churchill).

Well in advance of next year’s general election, he has been selected as the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. And while he fervently expresses support for incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron, the government’s defeat would trigger a Tory leadership contest in which the mayor might prove unbeatable. Boris’s path to Downing Street may be winding and potholed, but no more than that of Churchill.

Countless chroniclers have traced the colossal arc of Churchill’s life. Martin Gilbert’s multivolume official biography remains the touchstone, and of the many that have followed (and have benefited from Gilbert’s labors), Roy Jenkins’ sparkling, urbane, and admiring single-volume work is the best. Johnson relies openly upon both, and modestly avers that he “sits at the feet” of Andrew Roberts and other distinguished historians.

Wisely, Johnson eschews straightforward chronology. Rather, he adopts a thematic approach that illuminates Churchill’s remarkable character without becoming tangled in the minutiae of a long and complex life. We are given insightful ruminations on Churchill’s astonishing literary gifts, “immense physical and moral courage,” and towering intellect. But of all the remarkable qualities so lovingly enumerated in The Churchill Factor, perhaps the most impressive is what Johnson calls, after the Greeks, megalopsychia—greatness of soul. Churchill was capable of astonishing acts of generosity, and his magnanimity rivaled Lincoln’s. A close friend observed, “The first time you meet Winston you see all his faults, and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues.” For all his egotism and irascibility, Churchill was a good man as well as a great one.

Much of the fun of The Churchill Factor comes from the delightful and evervescent way Johnson tells the tale. His writing crackles with vivid metaphors and similes.

Churchill came to power on the very day that Hitler invaded Belgium and France, and as a Francophile he was mortified that, as Johnson puts it, “the French were possessed of an origami army: they just kept folding with almost magical speed.” Of Churchill’s capacious memory for poetry and prose, Johnson writes, “He kept and stored these literary delicacies for years, perfectly pickled in the alcohol-washed runnels of his brain.” Of his astonishing bravery, Johnson surmises that the “spirit of derring-do just pumped through his veins, like some higher-octane fuel than the one the rest of us run on.” (Of course that fuel was full of additives; the clearly awed author informs us that Churchill drank “a pint of Pol Roger champagne a day, together with white wine at lunch, red wine at dinner, and port or brandy thereafter.” There was also whiskey and soda with breakfast.)

And of his mortifying lapse in the House of Commons in 1904, when he suddenly dried up mid-speech, “In the vast cargo hold of his brain the baggage handlers have gone on strike.” (The mayor mischievously deployed the same line against Ed Miliband, the gaffe-prone Labour leader, at a recent Conservative party conference.)

But Johnson can also be serious. His historical judgments are generally sound, though there’s more than a whiff of projection here. On the matter of Churchill’s “semi-ideology,” as Johnson rather deftly puts it, he seems both to be describing his hero and writing his own manifesto. To him, Churchill “was radical precisely because he was conservative” and “essentially a buccaneering Victorian Whig.” Like Edmund Burke, Churchill understood that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,” and thus “the only way to be successfully and effectively reactionary was to be more than a little bit liberal.” This both nicely reconciles Churchill’s seeming inconsistencies and helps explain how a Tory could twice win the mayoralty of a left-leaning city.

Johnson’s portrait of Churchill’s marriage to the lovely, shrewd, and magnificently supportive Clementine Hozier is moving and insightful. Mother of four children and wife to a demanding and sometimes thoughtless egocentric, she ran the household, endured the miseries of political life, and tried to guard her husband from his worst instincts. Not for nothing did she say that her gravestone should be inscribed, “Here lies a woman who was always tired. Because she lived in a world where too much was required.” But she soldiered on to the end, a loving and faithful companion in victory and defeat.

While the book is brief the range is broad; Johnson takes on the whole of Churchill’s phenomenally eventful life. But the “Finest Hour” in 1940 takes pride of place, as it should. This achievement was all the more exceptional because the ruling class from which he sprang “was riddled—or at least conspicuously weevilled—with appeasers and pro-Nazis.”And after patiently engaging with the arguments of those revisionist historians who seek to topple Churchill from his pedestal, Johnson concludes, “there was something utterly magical about his leadership that summer. With his poetic and sometimes Shakespearean diction he made people feel noble, exalted—that what they were doing was better and more important than anything they had done before.”

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President Kennedy said of Churchill that “he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” and Johnson is particularly good at explaining precisely how he did it.

Take his marvelous encomium to the RAF fighter pilots after the Battle of Britain: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” According to Johnson, no mean phrasemaker himself, this “perfect epigram” is “a classic descending tricolon with anaphora, or repetition of key words.” He fleshes out this technical analysis with an evocative explication of what Churchill was so grateful for: “for protecting England, warm beer, suburbia, village cricket, democracy, public libraries, everything that makes the country special and that had been placed in mortal peril by the Luftwaffe.”

And of Churchill’s qualified celebration of the British victory at El Alamein—“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”—Johnson observes that “the last colon is varied by chiasmus, in that he swaps ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ so as to make the mind race and, again, to create an instant quotation that is entirely etymologically Anglo-Saxon.” As you can see, there is plenty of erudition to go with the laughs. Readers may wish to keep a dictionary within reach.

If Johnson’s story has a climax, it may be the moment when Churchill, hot on the heels of Allied troops, found himself on the Siegfried Line. With a puckish grin, he ordered his entourage, including several generals, to line up and join him in—how shall one put it?—showering their disapproval upon Hitler’s Germany. As Johnson generously observes, “If any dog had a right to mark its new territory, it was Churchill.”

Johnson rightly lauds Churchill’s forthrightness and “candour that would be simply intolerable in today’s dessicated politics.” Sadly, the American political system has become particularly hidebound, with legions of gimlet-eyed ideological enforcers ready to pounce unmercifully upon any apostasy. It is doubtful that any Churchill-like figure—were one available—could thrive. And compare Johnson’s eclectic oeuvre, which includes a meditation on the Roman Empire, a comic thriller, and a sparkling history of London, with the platitudinous and ghostwritten pablum produced by American politicians. Even Hillary Clinton’s most fervent fans must find it difficult to wade through the unreadable mush that is Hard Choices. Is it too much to ask that one who wishes to lead the world’s most powerful nation could write a compelling sentence?

Churchill said that meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening a bottle of Champagne—and so is reading The Churchill Factor. This wonderful book serves as a rumbustious, hilarious, but altogether sound introduction to its subject; a tribute to the vast, cathedral-like dimensions of Churchill’s greatness; and a (not so) subtle entreaty that perhaps it’s time to install another cerebral adventurer in Downing Street.