Winston Churchill’s Washington Humor

Winston Churchill’s Washington Humor

As an adjunct to the pre­vi­ous post, I am some­times asked for exam­ples of Churchillian humor involv­ing Wash­ing­ton and Amer­i­cans. Every­one likes Churchill’s famous crack in his first speech to Con­gress: “If my father had been Amer­i­can, and my moth­er British, instead of the oth­er way round, I might have got here on my own.” (In that case, he admit­ted, the invi­ta­tion to speak would prob­a­bly not have been unanimous.)

Churchill liked to empha­size his Amer­i­can roots. Broad­cast­ing to Amer­i­ca six months ear­li­er, he avowed some­thing he always believed:

The great Burke has tru­ly said, “Peo­ple will not look for­ward to pos­ter­i­ty who nev­er look back­ward to their ances­tors,” and I feel it most agree­able to recall to you that the Jeromes were root­ed for many gen­er­a­tions in Amer­i­can soil, and fought in Washington’s armies for the inde­pen­dence of the Amer­i­can Colonies and the foun­da­tion of the Unit­ed States. I expect I was on both sides then. And I must say I feel on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean now. (Broad­cast to USA, 16 June 1941, after receiv­ing an hon­orary degree from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rochester)

In Wash­ing­ton dur­ing his third speech to Con­gress in Jan­u­ary 1952, he reit­er­at­ed his descent from rev­o­lu­tion­ary Amer­i­cans: “I was on both sides in the war between us and we.”

The “Naked Encounter”

The most famous exchange with Roo­sevelt dur­ing Churchill’s 1941 vis­it to the White House is an “old chest­nut.” But every­body enjoys it—and it’s one gold­en oldie that actu­al­ly appears to be true….

Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt, inspired to name the new world body he visu­al­izes the “Unit­ed Nations,” wheels him­self into Churchill’s room. He finds the Prime Min­is­ter, as Har­ry Hop­kins put it, “stark naked and gleam­ing pink from his bath.”

After his Har­vard address on Anglo-Amer­i­can uni­ty, 1943. At left is  Detec­tive Inspec­tor Wal­ter Thomp­son. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Roo­sevelt hasti­ly turns his wheel­chair to leave. But Churchill waves him in. ”The Prime Min­is­ter of Great Britain has noth­ing to hide from the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States.” (Or, in anoth­er ver­sion: “You see, Mr. Pres­i­dent, I have noth­ing to hide.”)

When queried about this by Roo­sevelt biog­ra­ph­er Robert Sher­wood, Churchill denied it: “I could not pos­si­bly have made such a state­ment as that. The Pres­i­dent him­self would have been well aware that it was not strict­ly true.” (In a third ver­sion Roo­sevelt sim­ply says: “Unit­ed Nations!” and Churchill responds “Good!”)

What­ev­er they said, the encounter appar­ent­ly did hap­pen. Both sec­re­tary Patrick Kin­na and body­guard Wal­ter Thomp­son, who were on the trip, con­firmed it. In Jan­u­ary 1942, speak­ing about his vis­it to King George VI, Churchill said: “Sir, I believe I am the only man in the world to have received the head of a nation naked.” He did not how­ev­er con­firm his actu­al words. (See “Noth­ing to Hide.”)

“Ah sho’ do…”

Churchill rarely had press con­fer­ences, but a notable one was with Roo­sevelt in Wash­ing­ton on 23 Decem­ber 1941. A Texas reporter piped up (get­ting his title wrong). “Mr. Min­is­ter can you tell us when you think we may lick these boys?”

There was a pause while some­one explained to WSC the mean­ing of the Amer­i­can slang, “lick.” Then he grinned, “If we man­age it well, it will take only half as long as if we man­age it badly.”

Anoth­er south­ern reporter asked: “Mr. Prime Min­is­ter, in one of your speech­es you men­tioned three or four of the [war’s] great cli­mac­ter­ics. Would you now add our entry into the war as one of these, sir?” WSC: “I think I may almost say [affect­ing a Texas drawl] Ah sho’ do!”

Not come to ask you for money…for myself

Win­ston Churchill was the only for­eign­er to have made three speech­es to Joint Ses­sions of Con­gress. His last was in 1952—which text I was asked for by Nel­son Mandela’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives when Man­dela, came to address a Joint Ses­sion. In this speech Churchill famous­ly told Congress:

I am hon­oured indeed by these expe­ri­ences which I believe are unique for one who is not an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen. It is also of great val­ue to me, on again becom­ing the head of His Majesty’s Gov­ern­ment, to come over here and take coun­sel with many trust­ed friends and com­rades of for­mer anx­ious days.

Lat­er he remarked, “I have not come here to ask you for mon­ey….” At this point some have claimed they heard him add (not quite sot­to voce): “…for myself!” Bar­bara Lang­worth cruised the Inter­net for the video, which shows only that after “ask you for mon­ey” he sim­ply cleared his throat. But I have heard this from sev­er­al of his inti­mates. Per­haps he put it in while recit­ing the speech to some­one like his wife—who would have appre­ci­at­ed it.

Do the right thing…

One of the most famous wise­cracks, bandied about the Inter­net, is not con­firmed. If he did say it, he would have spo­ken in pri­vate, since he was very care­ful about crit­i­ciz­ing allies pub­licly. Some believe  that if he didn’t say this, he thought it…. “The Amer­i­cans can always be trust­ed to do the right thing, once all oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ties have been exhaust­ed.” There is no con­fir­ma­tion for this one, which must remain in the realm of conjecture.

You can nev­er go wrong in Wash­ing­ton quot­ing a rel­a­tive­ly pop­u­lar politi­cian. Bet­ter yet, pick one who hasn’t been in office for 20 years or more. Churchill nev­er failed to allude to and quote Bourke Cock­ran, the New York Demo­c­rat Con­gress­man who had befriend­ed him in his youth. In Wash­ing­ton he did not hes­i­tate to wheel out his favorite Cochran expres­sion. It came at the end his 1941 speech to Congress:

 It is not giv­en to us to peer into the mys­ter­ies of the future. Still, I avow my hope and faith, sure and invi­o­late, that in the days to come the British and Amer­i­can peo­ples will for their own safe­ty and for the good of all walk togeth­er side by side in majesty, in jus­tice, and in peace.

(All quo­ta­tions are from Churchill by Him­self.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RML Books

Richard Langworth’s Most Popular Books & eBooks

Links on this page may earn commissions.