Since President Trump has taken office, the American public has quickly learned to get its political news from a novel source: the president’s Twitter account.
The move to this platform represents a monumental shift in the nature of politics, both for good and for ill. But although President 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 exercise the brevity the platform requires.
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 today. I don’t suggest what he would say. No one can know that. But I do know how he would go about it — and I suggest that his methods offer an excellent example for today’s leaders.
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, when 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.
Second, Churchill rarely attacked someone personally in public, though he didn’t hesitate to lampoon their well-known traits. 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 a 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.
An 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?’
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. This was much more gratifying than outbursts in the Twitterverse. No one ever had to worry, “What dreadful thing will Churchill say next?”
Third, Churchill would often use interesting allegories or images rather than vicious barbs when confronted by opponents. Several U.S. presidents in a row have been dogged by either the contrarian Senator Rand Paul or, before him, his father, Representative Ron Paul. 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.
Lastly — and perhaps most important — 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, Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition government, succeeded 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.
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?”
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.”
Churchill was accused of waffling, 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 prime minister never thought seriously about important issues. Churchill responded: “That would be a rather hazardous assumption on the part of the right honorable gentleman, who has not, so far as I am aware, . . . distinguished himself for foresight.” This was about as personal as Churchill’s retorts got.
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.