Politics & Policy

Two Giants

Steven Hayward compares Reagan and Churchill.

In his new book, Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the making of Extraordinary Leaders, Steven F. Hayward–a familiar name to National Review Online readers–compares, as the title suggests, Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill. NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez recently talked to him about those guys and making such assessments.

National Review Online: What made you first think of Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill in the same sentence–and enough sentences to fill a book?

Steven F. Hayward: This was something of an accidental discovery growing out of my larger work-in-progress on the Reagan presidency (the second volume of The Age of Reagan, due hopefully next year). I began writing what I thought would be four or five paragraphs on the ways in which Reagan used the example and memory of Churchill. But I kept working through the material, and before long I was up to 5,000 words. I came to see that the parallels between them are extensive and profound. Martin Anderson and Peter Robinson both encouraged me to turn these musings into a short book.

NRO: Quoting Churchill is a bipartisan pastime in American politics. How does Reagan differ from other American politicians on this score?

Hayward: It turns out that President Reagan quoted Churchill more often than all other presidents put together. But beyond the fondness for the memorable quotation or witticism, it became apparent to me that Reagan fully absorbed the lessons of Churchill’s statecraft, and that this was central Reagan’s approach to the Cold War.

The easiest way to see this is to recall Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946, in which he said that World War II could have been prevented “without the firing of a single shot,” if only the Western democracies had armed themselves and stood up to the dictators. And then recall what Margaret Thatcher said about Ronald Reagan (in the pages of National Review, no less!) in the early 1990s; she said that Reagan won the Cold War “without the firing of a single shot.” I don’t know whether the Iron Lady was consciously recalling the Iron Curtain speech in this remark, but the symmetry between Reagan and Churchill on the Cold War is compelling when you look more closely.

NRO: What was at the heart of their shared understanding and strategy for the Cold War?

Hayward: In the Iron Curtain speech and in his subsequent writings, Churchill emphasized two themes that became central to Reagan. First, the Soviets only respected military strength, which meant that the West needed to be at least as powerful at the Soviet Union. Second, Churchill argued that the existence of nuclear weapons made it imperative that the West reach a permanent settlement with the Soviet Union. Churchill was arguably the first advocate of détente back in the 1950s, but from a position of strength rather than sentimental good will that characterized the flabby détente we attempted in the 1970s (especially under Jimmy Carter, whom Reagan compared to Neville Chamberlain against the advice of his top campaign aides). Reagan’s emphasis on rearming the West before pursuing arms negotiations with the Soviets is well known, but his frequent statements about the necessity of reaching an honest settlement with the Soviet Union tended to be overlooked or discounted both at the time and even today.

NRO: You note a number of other coincidences and similarities between Reagan and Churchill beyond Cold War statecraft. Would you share a few?

Hayward: There are many seemingly superficial parallels between them, and some that are more substantive. On the surface they seem quite disparate, with Reagan having been an actor most of his adult life while Churchill was a lifelong statesman of the highest order. But remember that many of Churchill’s friends would say to him–”Winston, you missed your calling in life. You should have been an actor!” In fact Churchill was fascinated with Hollywood, whose leading studios he visited in 1929; he even wrote an unproduced screenplay in the 1930s, and proposed at one point to write screenplays for Charlie Chaplin. Reagan once remarked late in his presidency that he did not know how a person could be president and not be an actor. Churchill, like Reagan, understood the dramatic or theatrical aspects of politics in a democratic age. And so one can observe that they prepared their speeches in a remarkably similar way.

They both had a fondness for vigorous outdoor labor. Churchill spent years building a large brick wall by himself at his country home, Chartwell, while Reagan build long fences out of telephone poles at his ranch, as well as endlessly cutting brush. And of course they both loved horses. Both were in the cavalry Churchill wrote: “No one ever came to grief–except honorable grief–through riding horses. No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle.” And Reagan was fond of quoting Xenophon: “There is nothing quite so good for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.”

It is also very instructive to note that many of the severe criticisms that were made of Reagan’s governing style were also made of Churchill during World War II, but have been forgotten with the passage of time.

NRO: What are some of the other meaty parallels between the two?

Hayward: Both were party switchers, moving from the moderate left to the rightmost reaches of their adopted parties. Both were distrusted by their party’s establishments, and were not the first choice of those establishments when their moment came. Reagan was known as a champion of supply-side economics; hardly anyone is aware that Churchill, as chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s, argued for cutting income-tax rates in Britain explicitly on supply-side grounds. And they are the only two chief executives in history that I am aware of who quoted the obscure French economist Fredric Bastiat.

Both had an overpowering sense of personal and national destiny that seems to have contributed materially to their enormous self-confidence as well as their rhetoric about the greatness of their respective nations.

But above all what marks both men out from their contemporaries who were otherwise similar to them in general ideological terms was their fierce independence of judgment, audacious imagination, and willingness to take unconventional views on nearly all questions.

NRO: What explains this distinctiveness, and can it be bottled?

Hayward: Not likely. That’s why the book took the theme of greatness–the search for those markers that set apart the genuinely few individuals who deserve the accolade of statesmen.

I think a key aspect to understanding both men was their political self-education. Both were reputedly poor students for much of their formal academic careers, though this has been exaggerated in both cases. But you can see that they formed their political views on their own after their formal education ended. In Churchill’s case, he read extensively on his own as an army officer in India, where, he said, “I had no one to tell me: ‘This is discredited.’ ‘You should read the answer to that by so and so.’ ‘There is a much better book on that subject,’ and so forth.’” In other words, Churchill had the graduate student’s reading list without the stifling guild mentality of the graduate faculty. In Reagan’s case, his serious political self-education really took place in the 1950s, when, during his tours of the nation for General Electric, he was reading widely in the nascent conservative literature of the time, from Whittaker Chambers Witness to Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson to Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, and–of course–the brand new National Review. Like Churchill in India, Reagan didn’t have anyone to tell him that these authors were beyond the pale or discredited in some way.

NRO: Do you expect we’ll see another Reagan, another Churchill?

Hayward: The tides of history and the scale of modern life have not made obsolete or incommensurate the kind of large-souled greatness we associate with Churchill or Reagan–or Lincoln or George Washington for that matter. At the beginning of the book I pose the question: Why were Churchill and Reagan unique among their contemporaries in their particular insights and resolves? By the end I conclude the answer must be that they transcended their environments and transformed their circumstances as only great men can do, and thereby bent history to their will.

It is important to keep in mind that nearly all the figures were regard as great statesmen were ferociously controversial while they were on the scene–and this includes Churchill even during World War II. It is usually only with the hindsight of history that we come to see their greatness more clearly. This lack of clarity at the time derives mostly from the natural partisan divisions in modern politics. Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, mused last Christmas that we might someday come to regard George W. Bush and Tony Blair as deserving membership in the pantheon of great statesmen–if their strategy for the Middle East is vindicated over the next generation. “Our societies are too divided today to deliver a calm judgment,” he wrote. “Any accurate assessment of Bush and Blair must wait, perhaps a decade or longer, until the record can be scrutinized.”

But I believe that great statesmanship must be possible in part because it is necessary. It is encouraging to recall that Reagan abjured being considered great himself, because he said he was merely a reflection of the greatness of the American people. To paraphrase his first inaugural address, he would answer the question of whether there could be another Ronald Reagan by saying, “Of course there can–just look around you.”

NRO: So the moans conservatives felt watching old Reagan footage at NR’s recent 50th anniversary dinner, when thinking of our current president, were premature?

Hayward: Perhaps. Reagan’s deficits were proportionally larger than Bush’s are today, and if–a big if–Bush can begin to hold the line on spending in his last couple years, and make his tax cuts permanent, there may be a chance that a decade or more from now his seeming current weakness will look different. And if Harriett Miers is confirmed and performs as the president wants us to believe, Bush will have the last laugh on all of us.

NRO: Did Reagan and Churchill have all-hope-is-lost moments like some are feeling right now in the case of Bush? Blair, too, of course, has had his fair share of little-confidence moments.

Hayward: One thing conservatives who praise Ronald Reagan today forget is how angry and disappointed many conservatives were with Reagan at various points during his administration, such as over the tax increase in 1982, and when he started getting along with Gorbachev. In the book I recount some of the conservatives who thought Reagan was selling out to the Soviets, and who put their criticism in very pungent terms. In 1982 Conservative Digest ran a cover story, “Has Reagan Deserted the Conservatives?” In hindsight most of us today think we never had it so good. It is a noble thing to have high expectations, and we may well recall Bush with some fondness during Hillary’s second term.

NRO: Knowing what you know about the big guys, does it make you cringe every time you hear a pol compare himself to one of the two?

Hayward: Usually yes. It is commendable that political figures would want to model themselves after the best our history has to offer by way of example, but it would be good if some of them paid close attention to how Churchill and Reagan conducted themselves. Take speechmaking as just one example. Neither Reagan nor Churchill would ever give the half-prepared, unrehearsed, disjointed and rambling speeches that lots of Senators and Congressmen routinely give today. Most of the politicians who now claim to be “Reagan Republicans” haven’t bothered to study Reagan’s habits and attributes very closely.

NRO: Trivia for the road: Tell me something about Churchill and Reagan I don’t know. I’ll have to buy the book just to thank you for making me sound so cool at cocktail parties.

Hayward: Reagan faked his eye exam to get admitted to the Army cavalry reserves in the 1930s. (His bad eyesight was discovered when World War II broke out, which is why he had a desk job in the war.) Churchill passed his first Army entrance exam on something of a fluke. Knowing he would have to pass a geography component of his exam, Churchill randomly chose to study a map of New Zealand for practice. When he opened his test, the geography segment consisted of one question: “Draw a map of New Zealand.”


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