How Would Churchill Tweet? -National Review

How Would Churchill Tweet? -National Review

“How Would Churchill Tweet?” appeared in Nation­al Review, 12 August 2017.

Since Pres­i­dent Trump has tak­en office, the pub­lic has quick­ly learned to get its polit­i­cal news from a nov­el source—namely, the President’s Twit­ter account.

The move to this plat­form rep­re­sents a shift in the nature of pol­i­tics, both for good and for ill. Trump might be among the first polit­i­cal lead­ers to use this medi­um to attack oppo­nents or make major announce­ments. He is cer­tain­ly not the first to uti­lize the kind of brevi­ty the plat­form requires to make his points.

Such brevi­ty also char­ac­ter­ized the rhetor­i­cal style of Win­ston Churchill, whose wit, humor and insight com­ple­ment­ed his deci­sive and effec­tive polit­i­cal lead­er­ship. If Churchill tweet­ed, we’d be read­ing very dif­fer­ent tweets from those we read from the pres­i­dent and oth­er polit­i­cal lead­ers. I don’t sug­gest what he would say. No one can know that. But I do know how he would go about it. His meth­ods offer an excel­lent exam­ple for today’s lead­ers. (I am speak­ing of pub­lic exchanges with polit­i­cal oppo­nents, not ene­mies in wartime.)

Humor and Irony

First, Churchill avoid­ed repay­ing vil­i­fi­ca­tion in kind. Instead he used humor, irony, plays on words. This low­ered the tem­per­a­ture and took the sting out of debate. For instance, an oppo­si­tion Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment, William Pal­ing, called him a “dirty dog.” Churchill grinned: “May I remind the hon­or­able mem­ber what dogs, dirty or oth­er­wise, do to palings?”

Anoth­er irate MP charged that the Prime Min­is­ter nev­er lis­tened. Churchill respond­ed: “I am afraid I did not hear what he said. Would he mind repeat­ing it?”

Blunt­ing insults with humor let Churchill off the hook. In the ensu­ing laugh­ter, peo­ple for­got that he’d nev­er respond­ed to the accu­sa­tion. “I have to mea­sure the length of the response to any ques­tion by the worth, mean­ing and sig­nif­i­cance of that ques­tion,” he said to an angry inquisitor—which avoid­ed any answer at all.

Avoiding Personal Attacks

Sec­ond, Churchill rarely attacked some­one per­son­al­ly in pub­lic, though he didn’t hes­i­tate to lam­poon their well-known traits. (I refer to Par­lia­men­tary oppo­nents, not vil­lains like Hitler, who were fair game. Label­ing Ram­say Mac­Don­ald “the bone­less won­der” was more an excep­tion than a rule.)

Dur­ing a loqua­cious speech by an MP who ques­tioned his verac­i­ty, judg­ment and even morals, Churchill inter­rupt­ed: “I can well under­stand the hon­or­able mem­ber speak­ing for prac­tice, which he bad­ly needs.”

Pre­sent­ed with long, dis­parag­ing edi­to­r­i­al he took a sim­i­lar tack: “I find [your paper] emi­nent­ly read­able. I entire­ly dis­agree with it.” And: “I like the mar­tial and com­mand­ing air with which the gen­tle­man treats facts. He stands no non­sense from them.”

Soon after regain­ing pow­er in 1951, Churchill was asked why he was accom­plish­ing so lit­tle, hav­ing promised so much in the cam­paign – a famil­iar accu­sa­tion in our cur­rent moment. His response? “I did not get the pow­er to reg­u­late the way in which the affairs of the world would go,” he said. “I only got the pow­er to pre­side over a par­ty which has been able to beat the oppo­si­tion in divi­sions [votes] for eigh­teen months.”

Korea was a prob­lem in 1952, as today. “Is the Prime Min­is­ter aware of the deep con­cern felt by the peo­ple of this coun­try at the whole ques­tion of the Kore­an con­flict?” an MP asked. “I am ful­ly aware of the deep con­cern felt by the hon­or­able mem­ber in many mat­ters above his com­pre­hen­sion,” Churchill replied, again using wit to avoid an unan­swer­able question.

What’s more, some­times, in avoid­ing jibes, he did not even defend him­self. The defense would come lat­er, in a care­ful­ly word­ed state­ment at a time of his choosing.

Allegorical Parries

Third, Churchill would often use inter­est­ing alle­gories or images rather than vicious barbs when con­front­ed with oppo­nents. Sev­er­al U.S. pres­i­dents in a row have been dogged by the con­trar­i­an Sen­a­tor Rand Paul, and his father, Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ron Paul before him. A sim­i­lar father-and-son team tar­get­ed Churchill simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. “Isn’t it enough to have this par­ent vol­cano con­tin­u­al­ly erupt­ing in our midst?” Churchill asked. “And now we are to have these sub­sidiary craters spout­ing forth the same unhealthy fumes!” Using the pro­noun “we” instead of “I” sug­gest­ed sub­tly that every­body felt as he did.

Collegiality and Respect

Lastly—and per­haps most importantly—even though the polit­i­cal divide was as wide in his time as in ours, Churchill fos­tered respect and col­le­gial­i­ty. Intrin­sic to his meth­ods was an under­ly­ing respect for oppo­nents. To him they were not ene­mies, mere­ly hon­or­able peo­ple who were mistaken.

In the 1930s, demand­ing rear­ma­ment against Nazi Ger­many, Churchill was kept out of office by the pro-appease­ment Con­ser­v­a­tive leader Stan­ley Bald­win. On the floor they were ene­mies, off it they were col­leagues. Ama­teur painters, they were invit­ed to address the Roy­al Acad­e­my. Churchill’s allu­sion to Baldwin’s lethar­gy on defense got his views across with­out insult: “If I were to crit­i­cize him at all I would say his work lacked a lit­tle in color…Making a fair crit­i­cism, I must admit there is some­thing very repose­ful about the half-tones of Mr. Baldwin’s studies.”

The Labour Party’s mild-man­nered Clement Attlee was Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coali­tion gov­ern­ment, then oust­ed Churchill as prime min­is­ter in 1945. He was the butt of many Con­ser­v­a­tive jokes; Churchill would have none of them. Mr. Attlee was a devot­ed ser­vant of coun­try and par­ty, he would say, when­ev­er he heard a barb aimed at his suc­ces­sor. (“Sheep in sheep’s cloth­ing,” though fun­ny, is not trace­able to Churchill.)

Churchill’s great­est antag­o­nist in lat­er years was Labour’s Min­is­ter of Health Aneurin Bevan, founder of the Nation­al Health Ser­vice, who exco­ri­at­ed Churchill at every oppor­tu­ni­ty. Bevan would call Churchill a plu­to­crat exploiter of the work­ers, and Churchill would respond by nam­ing Bevan “Min­is­ter of Disease.”

When Bevan died in 1960, Churchill shocked his fel­low MPs by launch­ing into an impromp­tu eulo­gy: “A giant in his par­ty, a great advo­cate for social­ism, a resource­ful debater….” Then, stop­ping in mid-sen­tence he looked around: “Are you sure he’s dead?”

Tweet – Ready Churchillisms

Below are some of Churchill’s most Twit­ter-wor­thy ripostes – all with­in the platform’s 140-char­ac­ter lim­it and all char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly clever, direct and humorous.

“Damned old fool!” shout­ed an oppo­nent, who then apol­o­gized. Churchill shrugged: “The damned old fool accepts the apol­o­gy,” repeat­ing the insult while dis­arm­ing its author.

Dur­ing uproars fol­low­ing a con­tentious 1947 remark, he invoked Eccle­si­astes: “The crack­ling of thorns under a pot does not deter me.”

Five years lat­er: “The spec­ta­cle of a num­ber of mid­dle-aged gentlemen…being in a state of uproar and fury is real­ly quite exhil­a­rat­ing to me.”

When one worked him­self into such dud­geon that he became tongue-tied, Churchill observed: “My hon­or­able and gal­lant friend must real­ly not devel­op more indig­na­tion than he can sustain.”

Some said Churchill waf­fled, leav­ing his admin­is­tra­tion in dis­ar­ray. A col­league asked why couldn’t he make up his mind. “I long ago made up my mind,” Churchill respond­ed. “The ques­tion is to get oth­er peo­ple to agree.” (Thus encour­aged, his col­leagues stopped squab­bling. There’s a les­son there.)

A mem­ber of his own par­ty said the PM nev­er thought seri­ous­ly about impor­tant issues. Churchill respond­ed: “That would be a rather haz­ardous assump­tion on the part of the hon­or­able gen­tle­man, who has not, so far as I am aware…distinguished him­self for fore­sight.” This was about as per­son­al as Churchill’s ripostes got.

Time for a Revival?

One of his arch-oppo­nents famous­ly accused the Prime Min­is­ter of “cheap dem­a­gog­ic ges­tures” – an all-too-famil­iar accu­sa­tion these days. “I think X is a judge of cheap dem­a­gog­ic ges­tures,” replied the PM, “but they do not come off when he makes them.”

Win­ston Churchill’s prin­ci­ples of debate and response—and his pre­vail­ing respect for the oth­er side – are cru­cial val­ues that have, in large part, van­ished from the Twit­ter­verse, if indeed they were ever there in the first place. It is time for a revival.

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