Opinion

KOLB: The Last Century’s Great Leader Was Winston Churchill; This Century May Not Have One

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Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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As the presidential debates drag on, there’s been little attention paid to presidential leadership. When the candidates aren’t attacking President Trump, they’re mired in mind-numbing details about health care reform and how to fund it. They all have plans, and they all sound like public-policy professors or assistants to the president for domestic policy. At best, that’s a second-floor West Wing cubicle, not the Oval Office.

Each candidate tries to outdo the other in mastering minutiae. We’re electing a leader of the free world, not a policy wonk. Their debating skills are apparent, but what can we glean about their leadership capacities?

“Remember Winston Churchill.” Those three words are carved in a stone tablet embedded in the floor near one of the entrances to London’s Westminster Abbey. Their brevity and simplicity make an important statement about the United Kingdom’s greatest prime minister. The short admonition also begs a question: Why remember Churchill at all, who was born in 1874 and died in 1965?

We remember Churchill because he played a pivotal role in defeating Adolf Hitler and thereby saving Western civilization. Many observers (myself included) consider him the most important person of the 20th century. He was Queen Elizabeth II’s first prime minister, and it’s quite possible, in an unguarded moment, she might consider him her favorite.

Former President Obama never understood why Churchill matters. He downplayed Churchill largely because of his earlier role overseeing large swaths of the British Empire, including parts of Africa where Obama’s ancestors lived. In early 2009, President Obama removed a Churchill bust from the Oval Office and reportedly returned it to the British Embassy. In 2017, President Trump, signaling a renewed U.K.-U.S. “special relationship,” brought Churchill back.

Perhaps the only thing that Barack Obama and Winston Churchill have in common is the Nobel Prize. Obama won the Peace Prize, not for any accomplishments, but rather for his potential. Churchill received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, after having written dozens of books, including a novel, multivolume histories of World Wars I and II, and A History of the English- Speaking Peoples. The Nobel citation included his “brilliant oratory for defending exalted human values.”

For much of his nongovernment career, Churchill was a journalist. He had a special way with words: he understood their musical cadences, the properties and possibilities of alliteration, the way that prose could became poetry when spoken with purpose and careful delivery. He knew how to craft his speeches, mostly radio broadcasts, to touch the hearts of millions of his fellow citizens and to inspire their resistance and their resilience during World War II’s darkest periods.

Read and listen to those words today and marvel at the often jaw-dropping quality of the prose and Churchill’s delivery. Considering what was at stake, and the fact that, for a time, England stood virtually alone against Hitler, it is difficult to absorb Churchill’s words without tears of admiration.

The Churchill family home is the stunning estate called Blenheim Palace that once belonged to Churchill’s ancestor and military hero, the Duke of Marlborough, about whom he published a four-volume biography. The topic was leadership.

Not far away, Winston and Clementine Churchill lie buried together in tiny Bladon village. Interestingly, given Churchill’s strong American connections (his mother, Jennie, was American), The White House Pub sits just across the road. You can walk up to the Churchills’ gravestone; there are no guards to keep you away. Churchill’s modest grave is the antithesis of Napoleon’s grand Parisian edifice, Invalides. Modesty is often more befitting of true greatness.

President Trump isn’t known for being a reader, but he should study the recent 1,100 page, much-praised Churchill biography by Andrew Roberts. Several Trump policies make sense, but his overall leadership style and capacity have raised serious concerns. His rhetorical flourishes, coming from the lips of an American president, are often demeaning, destructive, desultory, and (yes) downright deplorable.

President Trump could learn much from Churchill, as could all of the Democratic presidential contenders. Perhaps it’s just too much to expect another Churchill in today’s world. It’s not always clear whether it’s the person, the times, or a combination of both that nurture leadership qualities.

Churchill experienced many failures, on the battlefield and in his public, political life. But when it mattered, his leadership qualities were second to none. Today’s aspiring leaders should remember Winston Churchill, and as citizens, we should demand more leadership than we’re currently getting.

Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy in the George H.W. Bush White House from 1990-1992. From 1997-2012, he was president of the nonpartisan, business-led think tank, the Committee for Economic Development.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.