June 2, 2016
Attributing clever remarks to Winston Churchill is a favorite pastime of politicians, journalists, and former speechwriters who needed to juice up the presentation of dull subjects. My favorite Churchill quote was “You can always trust the Americans to do the right thing only after they’ve tried everything else.” That one works in about any political discourse.
It is also one of the most ubiquitous of his attributed “quotes” that has no basis in fact. Nonetheless, Churchill is a never-faulting witness to the utility of the English language as a marvelous foil in elevated and frequently vicious political discussion. And I wish the current crop of political contenders were as deft with the foil as Churchill was.
Anyone so inclined can find Churchill quotes on the Internet. Among my favorite is “50 Sir Winston Churchill Quotes to Live By.” However, it is not a complete list and so today I would like to add some Churchill quotes that didn’t make it onto that list. They are all from the second volume of William Manchester’s gripping biography of Churchill, “Alone,” published in 1988 and which has survived four downsizings of my library. In choosing the quotes, I tried, not always successfully, in find in them something that might pertain to our current woeful political reality.
“Where there is a great deal of free speech there is always a certain amount of foolish speech.”
“There is not a more mean, stupid, dastardly, pitiful, selfish, spiteful, envious, ungrateful animal than the Public. It is the greatest of cowards, because it is afraid of itself.” (To put this quote in some context, as a staunch defender of democracy, Churchill believed that the Public had a right to be governed by whomever it chose. However, he never mistook public folly for wisdom and believed that the “great” man remained true to his principles. Throughout the 1930s, he was consistently at odds with the “Public” and suffered politically because of it. It was only when the facts proven him right about the war-like intentions of the Nazis that he was vindicated.)
“I have heard it said that a Government should keep its ear to the ground, but they should also remember that this is not a very dignified attitude.” (Political polling was in its infancy during Churchill’s time and he “scorned” it. This quote resonated with me because there is, in my opinion, too much pandering to specific constituencies in today’s Presidential campaign. By “pandering,” I mean too many pseudo-promises made without elaborating on the consequences, leaving the “Public” with the well-neigh impossible task of deciding for itself whether the promises can be kept.)
“(Politics is a human experience)… ”and does not unfold like an arithmetical calculation on the principle that two and two make four. Sometimes in life, they make five, or minus three, and sometimes the blackboard topples down in the middle of the sum and leaves the class in disorder and the pedagogue with a black eye. The element of the unexpected and the unforeseeable is what gives some of its relish to life, and saves us from falling into the mechanic thraldom of the logicians.” (I believe that we expect too much out of our Presidents, forgetting for the moment that not only are they human, but that they inherit a system that deliberately limits their power. The fact that so many of our pundits deplore the absence of “statesmen” among our elected officials today is due to so many corrosive factors in our body politic: the huge sums of money it takes to run a successful campaign, the pressures that are applied on our officials by a 24-7 media frenzy that feeds on conflict, and the ideological polarization bred by vastly different value systems that are virtually irreconcilable. The factors make it difficult, if not impossible, for elected officials representing specific constituencies to ever rise above what those consistencies will permit. Churchill’s “blackboard” remains toppled.
To end on a lighter note:
(When awaking after a fellow member of Parliament was droning on, who asked: “Must you fall asleep when I am speaking?) “No, it is purely voluntary.”
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