Winston Churchill and the Art of the Press Conference

Winston Churchill and the Art of the Press Conference

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.

Washington, 1941

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.

Quebec, 1942

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.)

Washington, 1952

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.

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