As Roberts will be quick to say, his "Churchill" is written on the foundations laid by the writing of Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill's official biographer, who died a few years ago, and on the insights of half a dozen other astute historians. Yet Roberts' book has enjoyed the benefit of recently opened archives, and his own shrewd and seasoned observations that go back 30 years. He is one of the great historians of his generation, and he is stupendously readable.
Throughout the book, certain themes keep resounding: Churchill's courage shown from an early age; his brushes with death as a combatant in early life, as a reckless outdoorsman and later, during World War II, as a daredevil prime minister; his wit; his relentlessness; his farsightedness, and with it his innovativeness. As a young First Lord of the Admiralty, he almost single-handedly prepared the fleet for World War I.
Then there was his aggressiveness, his willingness to offend and his belief in his own destiny. Former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain summed him up as being "bumptious," and many, from King Edward VII to the youngest parliamentarian, echoed this one-word description.
Roberts claims that from the age of 16, Churchill believed in his "destiny," as when he "informed a friend that he would save Britain from foreign invasion." The author provides numerous examples of Churchill's boastfulness, a boastfulness that Churchill frequently vindicated. Through all these years, he was never hurt by criticism. Nor was he impeded by self-doubt.
Roberts encapsulates what Chamberlain was to call Churchill's bumptiousness early in the book with a historian's acceptance of the good with the bad. He says: "Churchill was undeniably pushy. He cut corners and deliberately employed 'extravagances' and exaggeration for political effect, and he had been criticized as a thruster. He had also learned how to write and speak extraordinarily well, had boundless self-confidence, had developed an elephantine hide against criticism, could speak well in public and had shown a great deal of moral as well as physical courage. ... He was, in short, ready for a life in politics."
Is there anyone today in American political life whom this passage brings to mind? Why not Donald Trump? There are one or two achievements listed above that I would delete in President Trump's case, though I would add cigars and a prodigious amount of alcohol to Roberts' list — not enough to render Churchill a drunk but more than the abstemious president would countenance. Otherwise Roberts' catalogue of virtues and vices covers the president rather well. All I would add is that both were outsiders. One might think that an Englishman born in Blenheim Palace and an American born to great wealth in New York City were insiders, but they were not. Trump, incidentally, does bring two things to Roberts' catalogue that Churchill could never imagine: tweets and fast food. Churchill famously preferred slow food.
Former British statesman and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan brings Trump's image into even sharper focus. He called Churchill "Half English aristocrat and half American gambler." Americans may see for themselves how much of a gambler the American billionaire has been when the Democrats lay hands on his tax returns. Or should I say if the Democrats lay hands on his tax returns. Suffice to say, if you read Andrew Roberts' book, you will be reminded time and again of an American outsider who has made a mark in politics in but a couple of years. It took Churchill a lifetime.
But what a lifetime! Churchill probably lived the most variegated life of any political figure of the 20th century. Moreover, he was obnoxious, charming, emotional, selfish and patriotic. Andrew Roberts has captured his complexity in a way that few historians have ever imagined. It remains for an American to capture Trump's complexity, though the American probably has six more years left to observe him.