Churchill Walked With Destiny

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A framed poster of a famous portrait of Winston Churchill, photographed by Yousuf Karsh, hangs in our living room. I bought it from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1996, which hosted an exhibit of Karsh’s portraits that year. A cropped version of that portrait graces the cover of the latest biography of Churchill, published last year. Andrew Roberts, author of Churchill: Walking With Destiny came to the LeTourneau University campus earlier this week. There are 1,009 previous Churchill biographies. Despite that, Walking With Destiny has been hailed by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the London Times as the best Churchill biography ever published.

Roberts was accompanied by Karl Rove, former senior adviser to President George W. Bush and author of a recent biography of William McKinley. They became friends when Roberts participated in a lecture series held at the White House. On Tuesday, both delivered lectures at LETU and at Longview High School. Roberts and Rove also sold and signed books at Barron’s, a longtime, family owned establishment, which started out in 1972 as the Golden Hour bookstore.

I sat in on Roberts’ compelling lecture at LETU as he spoke without notes for nearly an hour. Churchill faced numerous brushes with death throughout his young adulthood. Born into aristocracy to an American-born mother and a demanding father, he served as First Lord of the Admiralty when World War I broke out in 1914. Huge military losses in the Dardanelles campaign and at Gallipoli forced his resignation in disgrace. He then joined the Army and served bravely. Churchill once famously said, “There is nothing so exhilarating as being shot at without results.” As Roberts noted, Churchill exhibited “an extraordinary calmness in moments of peril.”

Throughout his life, Churchill admitting to making many mistakes, some disastrous. But he always learned from his errors. He wrote his wife, Clementine, during the Great War that, “I should have made nothing if I had not made mistakes.” That determination propelled him to become, at great odds, prime minister of England during its greatest moment of peril, on May 10, 1940. At 16, Churchill said that he would be called upon to save London and England at some point in his life. That time came as Nazi Germany invaded Western Europe and launched the Blitz air campaign against Britain.

Besides being an extraordinary historian and biographer who has written extensively about Churchill for decades, Roberts gained access to material never made public before. That included the diaries of King George VI, who appointed Churchill as prime minister and met with him extensively during World War II. Roberts also gained access to papers of the Soviet ambassador to England, as well as four sets of papers at Cambridge that had been kept under wraps.

During his lecture, Roberts addressed the common belief that Churchill was an alcoholic. Not so, he averred. Certainly Churchill had a tremendous capacity for alcohol that far surpassed that of mere mortals. Roberts said, only half-jokingly, “Winston Churchill couldn’t have been an alcoholic because no alcoholic could drink that much.” While touring the United States during Prohibition in 1932, Churchill procured a doctor’s note allowing him to drink unlimited quantities of alcohol for his “post-accident convalescence.”

As Roberts noted, for several years Churchill was the only person in the United Kingdom to warn of the dangers Adolph Hitler and the Nazis posed to the UK and the world. One reason is that Churchill was an accomplished historian in his own right. Churchill wrote 37 books and more than 900 articles to support his spendthrift habits and love of luxurious possessions. He had a strong sense of history and put the Nazis in the “long continuum of British history,” Roberts said. He had seen fanaticism first hand during the World War I and “had the moral courage to stick by his message.” He became the glue that kept the Big Three — Britain, United States and Russia — together during the war.

Roberts concluded that the primary duty of a historian is to be objective, and he believes he viewed Churchill objectively in Walking With Destiny. But, “I started out liking him and wound up loving him.” That is understandable. Churchill stands as the greatest leader of the 20th century, in my view.

I am patiently waiting for my Beautiful Mystery Companion to finish Walking With Destiny, which she gave me for Christmas. (It weighs in at more than 1,100 pages.) Our copy is now inscribed to us and signed by Roberts. For lovers of history and books, that is a precious gift.

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