Churchill had how many ideas a day? How many were good?

Churchill had how many ideas a day? How many were good?

Q: “Who made the crack that Churchill had a hun­dred ideas a day but only four of them were good?” —Bruce Sax­ton, Tren­ton, N.J.

A: There are sev­er­al can­di­dates and vari­a­tions. Tak­ing them as a group, Churchill had from six to 100 ideas dai­ly, of which between one and six were good. In order of the most like­ly. But it could be one of those all-pur­pose cracks applied to many peo­ple.

Roosevelt: fifty to 100 ideas, three or four good.

Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt is the most like­ly to have said this, since he’s quot­ed more than any­one else. Lord Moran, Churchill’s doc­tor, heard the line from Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s Sec­re­tary of Labor. In his alleged diaries, Moran was with WSC in Mar­rakesh in Decem­ber 1947. “When I told him that Frances Perkins had quot­ed the Pres­i­dent as say­ing that Win­ston had a hun­dred ideas a day and that four of them were good, he blew up: ‘It is imper­ti­nent of Roo­sevelt to say this. It comes bad­ly from a man who hadn’t any ideas at all.'” That was an unusu­al­ly rough dis­missal of FDR—but pos­si­ble. WSC was then writ­ing his ear­ly war mem­oirs.

The jour­nal­ist Col­in Coote, long­time friend of Churchill and sec­re­tary of The Oth­er Club, might have had this from Moran, but he pub­lished it before Moran did. Coote wrote the chap­ter, “Churchill the Jour­nal­ist,” in Charles Eade’s excel­lent com­pi­la­tion, Churchill by His Con­tem­po­raries (1953). Churchill, Coote wrote, had “a prodi­gious mem­o­ry and a men­tal activ­i­ty like a dynamo. ‘He has,’ said the late Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt, ‘a hun­dred ideas a day, of which at least four are good.’ More­over, he does not for­get what he has read; and since he has now read a lot he is a walk­ing ref­er­ence library.”

In 1988 William Man­ches­ter repeat­ed the FDR line but changed a num­ber in The Last Lion, vol­ume 2: “Franklin Roo­sevelt lat­er said: ‘Win­ston has fifty ideas a day, and three or four are good.'”  He pro­vides no foot­note. Since he wasn’t always pin­point accu­rate, he might have got the “fifty” wrong.

Alanbrooke: Ten ideas, one good.

Andrew Roberts in Hitler and Churchill offered a dual cred­it. Of Churchill he wrote: “He had an aston­ish­ing­ly fer­tile mind: ‘Win­ston had ten ideas every day,’ his Chief of the Impe­r­i­al Gen­er­al Staff Lord Alan­brooke used to say of him, ‘only one of which was good, and he did not know which it was.'” But then Roberts adds that “Roo­sevelt made a very sim­i­lar remark, say­ing that the Prime Min­is­ter had a hun­dred ideas a day of which six were good (a much larg­er num­ber if an even low­er per­cent­age).” Fine his­to­ri­an that he is, Roberts expand­ed on the theme:

Noth­ing was too minute a detail to escape Churchill’s notice. He laid down the pre­cise num­ber of apes that should occu­py the Rock of Gibral­tar (twen­ty-four), tried to find out whether cap­tured First World War tro­phy weapons could be recon­di­tioned for use, wor­ried about the ani­mals in Lon­don Zoo dur­ing the bomb­ing, and made sure that beer rations went to the fight­ing men at the front before those behind the lines. He even tried to dis­cov­er whether wax might be used to pro­tect the hear­ing of sol­diers dur­ing bom­bard­ments.

Duke of Kent: Six ideas, zero to six good.

In Men­zies and Churchill at Warthe crit­ic David Day writes that Prince George Duke of Kent told Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter Robert Men­zies that Churchill “has six ideas a day; they can’t all be right!” Day adds: “For such an ardent Roy­al­ist as Men­zies, this appar­ent Roy­al dis­plea­sure with Churchill must have weighed heav­i­ly.” Men­zies lat­er became more crit­i­cal of Churchill.

Lloyd George: Ten ideas, one good.

Anoth­er crit­ic, Kei­th Sains­bury, wrote in Churchill and Roo­sevelt at War: “Roosevelt’s intel­li­gence was not, per­haps, pri­mar­i­ly a cre­ative one, but to com­pen­sate for this he was extreme­ly recep­tive to new ideas and would take them from as wide a range of sources as pos­si­ble…. Churchill, how­ev­er, was inor­di­nate­ly fer­tile in ideas, which flowed from him in a steady stream, but less sure in judg­ment. His ear­ly men­tor, Lloyd George, had remarked of him, ‘There’s Win­ston, now. He has ten ideas a day, but he does not know which is the right one.'”

Verdict: FDR

It seems most like­ly that crack about Churchill was uttered by Roo­sevelt. Whether Lloyd George pre­ced­ed him is a good ques­tion, and possible—LG had a pret­ty good wit. The oth­ers might have heard the FDR remark and kept it in readi­ness for their own ver­sion. Or, some gno­mol­o­gist (see “Churchillian Drift” for the def­i­n­i­tion) may reveal that all these are vari­a­tions on an ancient wit­ti­cism dat­ing much far­ther back!

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