At the end of a disappointing campaign season, Boris Johnson is offering Americans a role model for using politics to inspire action, not indifference.
Johnson knows a thing or two about politics himself, serving since 2008 as the mayor of London. With yellow hair that always looks tossed by a wind tunnel, and a gift for speaking frankly, Johnson is encouraging proof that one doesn’t have to embrace bland conformity to get elected — at least not by his English constituents.
Before entering politics, Johnson worked as a journalist and author, and he’s found time to write a new book about England’s most famous politician, Winston Churchill. The book’s warm reception here in the United States suggests that election-weary Americans are hungry for the kind of courage and eloquence that Churchill used to save his nation during World War II.
In “The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History,” Johnson takes pains to mention that Churchill was far from perfect. The legendary British prime minister made some big blunders, and his mid-career switch from one political party to another would no doubt prompt some attack ads today dismissing him as a flip-flopper.
But Churchill, who died in 1965, was spared the banalities of the 30-second spot. And in the nearly half-century since his passing, his reputation has grown larger by the year.
Johnson’s book defies easy summary — he considers a lot of things that made Churchill special — but one quality stands out today perhaps more than it should: The wartime leader of the British people spent a great deal of time thinking about what he wanted to say before he said it. No platitudinous talking points or sound bites for him; he spoke in clear and persuasive sentences, outlining the problems of the day with an eloquence that rallied the public imagination.
“Hitler showed the evil that could be done by the art of rhetoric,” Johnson tells readers. “Churchill showed how it could help to save humanity. It has been said that the difference between Hitler’s speeches and Churchill’s speeches was that Hitler made you think he could do anything; Churchill made you think you could do anything. The world was lucky he was there to give the roar. His speeches were to earn him an undying reputation, and undying popularity.”
Churchill proved that it’s possible to lead a country by talking to voters as partners, not children. It’s a lesson that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic should remember as Churchill’s admirers observe the 50th anniversary of his passing.