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.”
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.)