The Last Biographer?

I’m always behind on my reading pile, so I was slow to catch up with the Wall Street Journal’s bizarro review last Saturday of the new Manchester-Reid Churchill biography, The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm.  Most of the “review” was more a memoir of the reviewer’s casual acquaintanceship with Manchester rather than a discussion of the book.  The subtext of the review, most people I’ve spoken with agree, seems to be sour grapes that the reviewer, biographer Deborah Baker, didn’t get the opportunity to be Manchester’s successor to complete the project instead of the unknown Paul Reid.  But why should she have?  She ends the review with the judgment that “Churchill was fully prepared to bring everyone else down with him,” and we know that Manchester wanted someone who admired Churchill rather than all his trendy critics.  In 1984 Manchester wrote ruefully in National Review (of all places for an old liberal) that “If there is a high office in the United States to which Winston Churchill could be elected today, it is unknown to me.”  That’s because people like Baker want only to tear down his reputation in the name of above-it-all revisionism.

The portion of the piece that’s actually about the book instead of herself is sniping that Reid is “painfully unaware of post-colonial scholarship” about the war and especially Churchill and India.  To which the sensible response is—thank God, and, by the way, Manchester would have discounted it too, since most of it is wrong when it is not defective for reasons of trendy political correctness.  Besides, the point of the enterprise is to tell a story in certain way that has fallen out of fashion in modern biography, which has come to emphasize minimalist approaches to the subject.  The style of Manchester, or Edmund Morris’s Theodore Roosevelt series (though not, of course Morris’s bizarro Reagan biography Botch. . . I mean, Dutch), doesn’t find favor today with anyone except . . . readers.

Baker underscores this point with a long excerpt of what she calls Manchester’s “mock Churchillian cadences” from the beginning of the first volume:

England’s new leader, were he to prevail, would have to stand for everything England’s decent, civilized Establishment had rejected. . .  An embodiment of fading Victorian standards was wanted: a tribune for honor, loyalty, duty, and the supreme virtue of action; one who would never compromise with iniquity, who could create a sublime mood and thus give men heroic visions of what they might become.   . . . Like Adolf Hitler he would have to be a leader of intuitive genius, a born demagogue in the original sense of the word, a believer in the supremacy of his race and his national destiny, an artist who knew how to gather the blazing light of history into his prism and then distort it to his ends, an embodiment of inflexible resolution who could impose his will and his imagination on his people—a great tragedian who understood the appeal of martyrdom and could tell his followers the worst, hurling it to them like great chunks of bleeding meat. . . . Such a man, if he existed, would be England’s last chance.

In London there was such a man.

I’ve always referred to the opening two pages of volume 1 where this excerpt appears as Manchester’s “Churchill Overture,” and I have learned a bit about how many times Manchester re-wrote and refined this opening passage.  If you don’t like this kind of writing, well fine; go read the more straight-up Martin Gilbert or Roy Jenkins instead.  It’s not so easy to emulate as you might think.  For example, compare it to Dinesh D’Souza’s use of the style in his 1997 book Ronald Reagan: How and Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, which was the first serious book to give Reagan his due before everyone started loving the Gipper:

In this time of ignominy and crisis, when the very issue of national identity was at stake, Americans needed a leader of unusual vision and determination.  The country required a statesman who would not accept his country’s decline as an inevitable fate.  Such a leader would need to find creative solutions to domestic and international problems that had eluded the most sophisticated minds and were the source of national demoralization.  Even more important, he had to have the skills to navigate the treacherous currents of politics, in order to win legislative victories and put his programs into effect.  Since even the best remedies take time, he would require tremendous resources of patience and tenacity, so as not to be distracted from his goals.  Moreover, in a democratic society like the United States, such a leader required the ability to win the support of a large majority.  The nation’s woes called for nothing less than a man who could turn the tide of history and renew the American spirit.

In California, there was such a man.


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