Question on press conferences
I am completing an English assignment which looks at the speeches of Winston Churchill and would like to read press conferences or interviews Churchill gave during the Second World War. So far, I have been able to find only speeches. Please could you advise me whether any such interviews are in existence? —E.L.
Churchill rarely gave interviews—only two that I know of as a young man, and those reluctantly. Speeches (live) were his preference. However, on his 1941 visit to Washington, Franklin Roosevelt ushered him into his first press conference. It was just a few weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the press had some fairly urgent questions. Churchill acquitted himself well.
It was the afternoon of December 23rd. Together, Churchill and Roosevelt met about 200 journalists and broadcasters in the President’s executive office. Churchill, seated in the back of the room, could not be seen very well by the crowd of reporters. When the President introduced him, he suggested that the Prime Minister stand to give his audience a better view. When Churchill climbed on his chair to be seen better, “loud and spontaneous cheers and applause rang through the room.”
Although Churchill had some difficulty hearing, his wit charmed everyone. Asked how long he thought it would take to win the war, he quipped, “If we manage it well, it will only take half as long as if we manage it badly.”
A southern reporter if he considered United States entry into the Second World War one of its “great climacterics.” Churchill grinned and answered in his best Texan drawl: “I sho’ do.” Newsweek reported that the “lusty cheers” were the first in the annals of presidential press conferences.
The transcript of this press meeting exists in Newsweek for 5 January 1942, page 23. See also the Complete Presidential Press Conferences of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vol. 18, No. 794, 23 December 1941 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), pp. 382-92.
Churchill easily adapted to the concept of press conferences, which seem to have been an American invention. Another press conference was held in Quebec, after the 1944 conference. A Canadian reporter asked a tricky leading question: “What do you think of the United States?” Churchill responded: “Toilet paper too thin, newspapers too fat.” (Churchill by Himself, page 116.)
After the war he got into another press conference when visiting Washington in January 1952. On arrival, a woman who managed to corner him asked: “Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech the hall is packed to overflowing?” Churchill responded: “It is quite flattering, but whenever I feel this way I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I were being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.” (Churchill by Himself, 552.)
It would be fair to conclude that on the rare occasions when he found himself surrounded by reporters, he would resort to humor, rather than make any weighty pronouncements.