His Finest Hour

In Time magazine this week, columnist Charles Krauthammer takes on the pundits who argue we cannot attack Saddam Hussein's Iraq while at the same time supporting, or failing to oppose, other undemocratic regimes around the world. This, he argued, is foolhardy: "Did we not, after all, join with Stalin, one of the great monsters of the 20th century, in order to defeat Hitler? Does anyone doubt not just the necessity but the morality of that alliance? It is the principle of the lesser evil. As Churchill once famously said, 'If I were told that the devil were on poorer terms with Hitler, I should find myself making an alliance with hell.' "

The day after that column appeared, the National Post, one of Canada's leading newspapers, published an op-ed against war on Iraq. The writer, Robert Harris, argued that it's wrong for the West to make the first strike, and for support he also tapped Churchill: "Hours after the Second World War began, on the morning of September 3, 1939, Winston Churchill made a short speech in Parliament pointing out the 'repeated efforts' Britain and France had made to avoid war. It was Germany alone that had started the fighting. 'This is of the highest moral value,' said Churchill. 'The storms of war may blow and the lands may be lashed with the fury of its gales, but in our own hearts this Sunday morning there is peace.' "

Churchill is a modern habit, of course. Even in normal times, not a day goes by when some media person somewhere isn't recycling a line from the endlessly pithy former prime minister. But as the war debate has ramped up in recent weeks, the media have been on a real Churchill jag. In the first 10 days of September 2001—just before the terror attacks—the name Winston Churchill appeared 50 times in major world newspapers, according to a search of the Lexis-Nexis database. In the first 10 days of September 2002, there were more than twice as many hits.

What's interesting is not so much that we are invoking Churchill now—when the subject is war, he's a natural—but the ways we invoke him. Take a close look at the current Churchill boomlet, and you can glimpse all kinds of little truths about how the media behave when the world is on the brink. Among the services Churchill provides:

1. Volume. Churchill is best-known for his speeches, and they are the most common source of media quotations, but he also wrote fiction, biography, memoirs, journalism, and history. As an added bonus, he had a habit of spouting memorable off-the-cuff remarks on an almost hourly basis. As White House speechwriters have long known, there is practically no subject for which you can't find a ringing Churchill insert. Columnists and other newsies know it, too, and in times like these, they run to the Churchill section of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, like kids to a candy store.

2. Quality. Never mind quantity; for sheer sentence-by-sentence eloquence, nobody beats Churchill. After all, the man didn't just stand up to Hitler, he won the Nobel Prize for literature. When you're on deadline on a topic as weighty as Iraq, and you want to make the point memorably, it's generally wise to let Winston make it for you. Because he's better. "As a writer, he was formidably professional," wrote Ben Pimlott last year in The Financial Times, "a nonfiction novelist, picking up historical narratives and molding them to fit the contours of his own imaginative universe.... The most famous speeches amounted to a kind of rolling, epic free verse."

3. Flexibility. As the Krauthammer and Harris columns show, Churchill said so much about so many things, he can be marshaled to support practically any side of any argument. On Iraq, he's all over the map-or so you'd think, judging from his recent cameos in the media. A few weeks ago, when the secretary of Defense compared Bush's stand on Iraq to Churchill's on Nazi Germany, the British press flew into a brief tizzy, and eminent historians were asked to weigh in. "Churchill and the Real Dangers of Rewriting History" said the headline over a column by historian Correlli Barnett, who wrote that "Donald 'Rambo' Rumsfeld" had "his history hopelessly wrong." At one point, Barnett damned the secretary's Churchillism with another Churchillism: "I ... advise Rumsfeld to stop spouting false history and instead remember Winston Churchill's dictum: 'Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.' " Another historian, John Keegan, wrote a column in The Daily Telegraph sympathetic to the Rumsfeld view. The headline: "If Churchill were alive today, he would strike at Saddam." Where Churchill stands depends on where the media people using him sit.

4. Conviction. Since newsies are not privy to the latest intelligence on Iraq, assessing the administration's claims about the Iraq threat can be a tricky business. Though media types are capable of displaying passionate conviction on any question—instant certitude is our specialty—the secrecy factor makes conviction on either side of the Iraq issue somewhat dicey. Lacking all the evidence, how can anyone be absolutely certain war is the right choice or the wrong one? This is where Churchill comes in. In times of doubt, his vigorous prose is the all-purpose confidence-builder. Just writing the phrase, "as Churchill said," makes you feel a little better about your chances of being right. As Churchill said, "We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy." We are the fearless media, Churchillians one and all.