Churchill Biography Pithy, Like The Man

One of the world's great historians has written a biography of the man who is one of the immense figures of the last century. And perhaps surprisingly, the book is short. Just 192 pages. It is pungent, pointed and eloquent, like some gorgeous, highly-distilled liqueur. Host Scott Simon speaks with author Paul Johnson about this revealing biography, titled, Churchill.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

One of the world's great historians has written a biography of the man who is one of the immense figures of the last century. And perhaps surprisingly, the book is short, just 192 pages. No surprise, because it's by Paul Johnson. It's a pungent, pointed and eloquent book, like some gorgeous, highly distilled liqueur. The book is called �Churchill.�

Paul Johnson, who among his many honors has also received the U.S. Presidential Medal Of Freedom, joins us from London. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. PAUL JOHNSON (Historian): I'm delighted to be with you.

SIMON: First off, you - yeah, you're one of the few historians writing today about Winston Churchill who actually met him.

Mr. JOHNSON: That's true. When I was 16, I had the opportunity to meet him in the lounge of a hotel just before he went off to make a big speech. This was 1946. And he gave me one of the giant matches he used for lighting his cigars.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: They were great big pieces of timber. And I was so encouraged by this that I said, Mr. Winston Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life? And he said without any hesitation: conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down. And never sit down when you can lie down. And he then got into his limo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, words to live by still, I'm sure. He loved and defended the empire, but he switched parties twice. He was the architect of old- age pensions, sweeping prison reform and labor exchanges. He was not easy to nail down politically, was he?

Mr. JOHNSON: That's true. He began as a Tory, found that he didn't like the Tories, joined the Liberals, quickly got office under them. And he and Lloyd George founded, in effect, the - what later was called the welfare state. They laid the foundations of it. And I think in many ways, those were Churchill's best years, and the ones that he looked back on with most satisfaction.

Later, of course, he rejoined the Tory Party and became its leader and prime minister as a Tory. But right at the end of his life, he met an old friend of mine and he said to this young MP, who are you? And the chap told him. Churchill said, what party? And this man said, Labor. Churchill said, I'm a Liberal, always have been. And I think by that, he meant that those were the best years of his life, when he was a Liberal and he was enacting progressive legislation. And of course his wife, who was very important to his life, she really was a Liberal and always tended to push him towards the left.

SIMON: I must tell you, I was a little disappointed to read that it's possible that Winston Churchill didn't drink as much as the world thought.

Mr. JOHNSON: No, he didn't. The Nazis always used to portray him as a drunkard. But I think there was only one occasion when he addressed the House of Commons under the influence of alcohol. And that was during the abdication crisis, and he tried to support the abdicating king, later Duke of Windsor.

And he was howled down in a very unpleasant scene. And Bob Boothby(ph), who was one time his private secretary, told me that he thought that that was the only occasion Churchill was ever a bit tight - not drunk but tight, in the House of Commons. He used to drink a lot of very good champagne, and he drank both whiskey and brandy. But he always mixed both of them with a large quantity of water or soda. And he sipped his drink. So he made a drink last a very long time.

On the only occasion when his lifetime drinking was measured - by his scientific adviser, using a slide rule and figures given to him by Churchill - he was deeply disappointed to find how little he had drunk throughout his life in terms of cubic meters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: We're speaking with historian and journalist Paul Johnson about his book, �Churchill.�

Winston Churchill, who made his living as a professional writer for many years, wrote - what is it, 10 million words?

Mr. JOHNSON: I calculate that he may have written as much as 10 million words, certainly more than 8 million, and it's much more than most professional writers write in a lifetime, just as�

SIMON: Who didn't take time out to run Britain during World War II.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, no. I mean, quite apart from all that, in his painting - he was a very good amateur painter - he painted 500 canvases. And that's more than most professional painters paint. So all around, his output was terrific.

SIMON: And so what's the secret to not just that creativity, but that sheer productivity?

Mr. JOHNSON: I think very hard work. I mean, he made himself a first-class orator, but he worked very hard on all his speeches. He wrote them out, word for word, and then learned them by heart. So it looked as though they were measured, spontaneous orations. But in fact, the midnight oil had been spent on them. And that was really, very typical of his whole approach to life. He worked very hard indeed. He was never content with the second rate or the shoddy. He always wanted to produce first-class work.

SIMON: What quality of Churchill would you like the world to hold dear most today?

Mr. JOHNSON: I think, probably, threefold qualities, really. The first is courage. You can't beat courage. Without courage, you can't be a great statesman. I think in our own time, Margaret Thatcher proved that. You have to have courage and guts.

But secondly, you have to have judgment, which is a form of intuition. It's no use having courage unless you've got the right policy. And the third thing is, you really have to have willpower. Next to courage, willpower is the most important thing in politics. Now, Churchill had all three of these qualities, which are very rare. But if you get them in combination, they are the winning qualities, the winning trio which makes a great statesman or great stateswoman.

SIMON: He had a heck of a sense of humor, too.

Mr. JOHNSON: That is always helpful. He could always get a laugh, and he laughed at himself. You know, he had that great quality, which Mr. Reagan used to have. He could laugh at himself, too. But all the things in life, he found delightful and interesting and above all, amusing from time to time. And he took full advantage of that to make jokes. And he made many jokes, and many of them were excellent jokes.

SIMON: Paul Johnson - his new, highly praised book is called, simply, "Churchill.� Thanks very much.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you, sir.

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