Stephen McGinty: Awake to responsibilities
THE weight of the presidency kept Johnston tossing and turning; Churchill slept soundly during the war, writes Stephen McGinty
One of the most surprising anecdotes about a politician, I encountered while reading the fourth and latest volume of Robert A Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power. This is a very long book, and has taken Mr Caro an exceedingly long time to write, 37 years so far and, at 76, he still has one volume to go, but what it does have is a great pulsing heart and a level of detail impossible to find in any other recent history. It truly is a life and a time reanimated on paper and in ink.
There is one scene that gives a chilling insight into the weight of responsibility and the consequences that it can have on the human frame. After the sudden shocking death of John F Kennedy, Johnson has become President of the United States, propelled by the path of an assassin’s bullet. (He had calculated that this might happen, not the assassination in Dallas, but that as vice-president he might get the top job as a result of his predecessor’s death. Although poor, it was the best odds he had of becoming president and so he took them, even though it meant the loss of power as Leader of the Senate and daily humiliation at the hands of Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney General, whom he hated and who hated him with equal venom.)
The point is, however, that once the power and authority settled on to his broad Texan shoulders Johnson could bear the load – just. At night, or, to be precise, in the early hours of the morning when he eventually climbed into bed, he would ask his assistant to sit in the room with him, quiet in the darkness, until he fell asleep. His assistant would sit in silence for 45 minutes or so and then, judging his boss to be asleep, would stand up and creak quietly towards the door. “I’m not asleep yet,” came a voice from the bed, so the assistant would once again sit down.
For some reason I kept that image in my head longer than almost any other point or scene or line of dialogue in this epic book because it speaks of the awesome, crushing responsibility of power for which few frames are adequately built.
This week, circumstance and television scheduling has led me to ponder one man who settled into the role like a portly Atlas propping up the world. The anticipation of last night’s opening of the London Olympic Games and Danny Boyle’s (I hope) triumphant representation of the United Kingdom as “Isles of Wonder” has made me think what Winston Churchill would have made of the Games’ return to Britain.
The great wartime leader was this week the subject of a new three-part series, The Churchills, by Dr David Starkey, which served to parallel Winston’s career with that of his ancestor, John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough who also saved the United Kingdom from European tyranny and the forces of Louis XIV.
But first to draw a parallel between the sleeping habits of Lyndon Johnson and Winston Churchill. While the new President of the United States, like a fretful child afraid of the shadows, required a human night-light and company in the dark, Churchill, on the first night he laid his head on the pillow in Number 10 as Prime Minister of a nation at war, outnumbered and surrounded, slept soundly. As he wrote of that first night: “I felt as if I was walking hand-in-hand with destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”
Churchill was a man for whom power and responsibility was an armoured suit he could easily slip on. It was ordinary, mundane life he found difficult to deal with, and, like Caro, he was also an industrious historian who also spent years toiling to complete a multi-volume biography, this time of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough.
Yet, while Caro has taken 37 years to hit volume four, Churchill took just six. Unlike Caro who, apart from the assistance of his wife, has used a pen as a pick and tunnelled entirely alone through a cavern of paperwork, Churchill was a pioneer, at least when it comes to writing history, in the belief that many hands make light work. Or, at least, lighter work.
Equipped with an advance of £20,000, the equivalent of £1 million today, Churchill hired a small battalion of historical researchers to distil documents and prepare lengthy memos which he then used as logs to fuel the his literary forge. (It is an approach that, as I understand it, Niall Ferguson is using with researchers assisting him on his current biography of Henry Kissinger.)
On Thursday I had the pleasure of a lengthy chat with Dr Starkey, who as an expert on The Tudors, is more comfortable in the 16th century than the 20th, but who said the series allowed him to rekindle his admiration for Churchill who, he believes, is almost bigger than Great Britain. When I asked him about what Churchill would think of the prospect of a splintered union and Scottish independence Starkey thought he would be saddened, but as a historian, he would have understood that the buttresses on which the union was first built, such as the Empire, have eroded.
The question is, why do I love Winston Churchill so? Well, the first answer is for his courage in May, 1941. When Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary looked out across England’s green and pleasant land and pondered that it was perhaps wiser to capitulate to Germany than see it all destroyed, Churchill had a different response to the green weald of Kent over which the windows of Chartwell looked out. It was, he concluded, better that all this beauty be burnt to the ground and every Englishman die, choking on their own blood, than to capitulate to the Nazis.
Today, such a sentiment appears horrific, yet it was exactly what was required at a time of national crisis, or else, as Simon Schama eloquently put it in his History of the Britain, the Jews would have been rounded up at Wembley Stadium.
The other reason why I love Winston Churchill is his wit. How can you not adore a man who retorted to a critic who accused him of being drunk that tomorrow he would be sober but they would always be ugly or to the two MPs who, spying him hobbling along the corridors of the House of Parliament, who commented on how old and frail he was now. “And so very hard of hearing” he retorted.
I also love him because he cried frequently – he would have wept buckets over last night’s opening ceremony. And he fretted about his work. When Home Secretary and the man ultimately responsible for hanging convicted murderers, he would insist on seeing their file and acting out their defence in his office in a bid to convince himself that they deserved clemency. If he could successfully do so, they were spared the noose.
He was also a man who can teach us all about tenacity and the need to accept failure as a step on which to built towards success. Although he grew corpulent in middle age, bulked up by his love of good food (he once peered down at a dessert then looked up at his host and said: “This pudding has no theme.” I don’t quite know why I love that line so), but as a youth he was fit and active with an adventurous streak that drove him to frequently leap before he adequately looked. As a child he leapt off a stone bridge, missed the opposing tree, fell 20 feet and broke his leg, but his motto was always: “Action This Day”, which he had printed on stickers. The secret to happiness was work, be it 100 bricks laid for a new wall or 1,000 words (though he frequently ground out 5,000 in a single night.)
Success, as Churchill once said, was the ability to go from one failure to the next without losing your enthusiasm, and surely this must be at the heart of every athlete who will compete in London over the next 16 days. Yet he was also exceedingly human, cursed by the black dog of depression and never satisfied by what he achieved, brooding instead on what was forever outwith his grasp.
For me Churchill will always be a beacon in the darkness, for two of his most sage-like phrases are tributes to endurance and as applicable to an athlete on the track or a soldier in the field as they are to anyone of us dealing with the vicissitudes of life. “When you are going through Hell, Keep Going,” and, my favourite: “KBO” an acronym for: “Keep Buggering On.”
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Friday 24 May 2013
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