Winston Churchill in Contemporary America

Thanks to a lull between writing deadlines, I hold the luxury of returning to other creative activities, namely this blog. In a previous post, I shared my thoughts on Netflix’s The Crown, dedicating the majority of my words to the dramatic portrayal of Winston Churchill and the masterful acting of John Lithgow.

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Winston Churchill as Prime Minister (Unknown Source).

This characterization of Churchill has continued to stick to my imagination, spurring me to reflect upon the sad state of American leadership. How would Winston Churchill (or pick another great figure from Western history) fare in the current atmosphere of American politics, media, and culture? Not well, I would argue.

Much like most men and women, especially those deemed to be “great,” Churchill was a complex individual threaded together with contradictions and hypocrisies. As a historical figure, he only can be judged fairly by the standards and passions of his time. When faced with the most pressing and the most existential question of his era–Nazi Germany–Churchill was clear-sighted, direct, and bold.

As noted in my previous post, Churchill was a highly educated and cultured man. He was a successful journalist, historian, and writer and he primarily supported his family with his pen and words. In 1953, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. When not plotting with his fellow politicians, editing the proofs for his latest book, or negotiating a post-War world order with Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill painted impressionist landscapes during his leisure time. Permit me to repeat that: Winston Churchill was a painter, an artist.

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Winston Churchill, The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell (Courtesy of Wikiart.org).

When pressed to list their favorite hobbies or pastimes, American politicians nearly always offer two pat answers–watching sports or reading the Bible–both calculated to endear them to the mythical everyman (or everywoman) and to make them appear to be devout and God-fearing as they claw after every scrap of power and prestige.

Imagine a presidential candidate, comfortable in wealth, class, and position, wearing well-tailored and expensive clothing, and sitting in a tastefully furnished living room with a television reporter. This theoretical candidate is questioned about public policy, family life, and love of country. Then, he or she is asked to share his or her favorite way to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon and medium for exploring the subtle joys and mysteries of life. Without a pause, the candidate answers: painting.

What would happen to this candidate? He or she would be ridiculed, mocked, and scorned. Pundits, politicians, and citizens would label this candidate as elite, effete, weak, maybe even European. Less polite commentators would dust off the epithet “gay.”

Consider this all-too-likely scenario for a moment and then examine our contemporary crop of “leaders.” Might our society’s lack of respect for culture and the mind help to explain the low quality of our leadership and its dearth of integrity, propriety, and courage? Might we have what we deserve?

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