"When my father was, if you like, the hero of his nation," Mary Soames was saying, "then of course all our schoolmates would talk about him. But when he was wandering in the political wilderness, then he was just the family's hero, quite like any father would be to his children."
A likeness of Mary Soames' father, captured in cold metal, was standing guard over Massachusetts Avenue as she spoke, with his blunt bulldog expression and his fingers fixed in the V sign and his place fixed in history as the fulcrum on which the freedom of England turned in the dark early days of World War II.
But as Winston Churchill fought fiercely and full tilt for his country and his own political fortunes, he had with him the kind of warrior wife that one somehow expected him to have: his complete equal.
"They were so matched as human beings," said Lady Soames as she sat sipping coffee. "They did live their lives out in an almost Shakespearian dimension -- always in the middle of great events."
Clementine plunged in with him, the ultimate political wife, always loyal, always ready to sacrifice just about anything for his future, and always opinionated.
"I think, my darling," she wrote in one of the letters Soames has included in her biography of her mother and her marriage, "Clementine Churchill," "you will have to very patient -- Do not burn any boats -- The [prime minister] has not treated you any worse than Ll. G. [Lloyd George] has done, in fact not so badly . . . You know I'm not good at pretending but I am going to put my pride in my pocket and reconnoitre Downing Street." b
Later, during World War II, when she was addressing her letters from Downing Street, she wrote, ". . . there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner -- . . . you are supposed to be so contemptuous that presently no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming . . . I must confess I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not as kind as you used to be."
A life so close to the center of things, of course, affected the Churchill children as well. The eldest, Diana, was only 5 when she included in her prayers the request that "God bless the Dardanelles," the place that signified Churchill's much cherished and disastrous Eastern strategy during his tenure at the Admiralty during World War I.
The children of such parents took what time they could with them. Lady Soames remembers the sense of history her father gave her, the way he made stories of the American Civil War and the reign of Charles I come to vivid life. When she was young she was most aware of the softness of Clementine's skin, the elegance of her clothes, her perfume and the way they had all placed her "goddess-like upon a pedestal."
And how politics was "the very basis of home life and conversation -- we were so deeply aware of living in the eye of the storm." In the book she recalls how her brother Randolph kept current with events while he was at Eton:
"At the beginning of the (1922) Strike [he wrote his mother] I asked the 'Sheep' [Col. Sheepshanks, his house master] if I could install a wireless set, in order to hear the news bulletins. However he would not let me. So I have fitted up a secret one in the bottom of my armchair. It works extraordinarily well and I can hear London quite easily . . ."
And Mary Churchill couldn't understand why her schoolmates did not burst into tears at the thought of the 1938 Munich crisis as she did.
The Churchill children, like most well-bred offspring, did not see all that much of their parents as they were growing up, their care confined to nannies and nurseries. But a mother so married to her husband's career reduced even further the time spent cultivating her children's affection.
Soames remembers her mother watching her one warm summer afternoon when she was busy with the beach parties and polo parties that came with raising her own five children. "I see you have so much fun with your children," Clementine told her daughter. "I never had."
But she had Winston, whose terrifying energy and cheerful self-absorption never seemed to faze her. "I suppose you could say," said Soames in the crisp accents of the British upper class, "that my father was an egoist. But I've known quite a lot of inferior men who were egoists and much harder to bear."
As Churchill himself airily put it, "I'm easily satisfied with the very best."
There is Churchill rushing in at the last minute with a gaggle of Parliament members invited for dinner; terrifying his pregnant wife with flying lessons and boasts of his exploits; rushing off on a painting expedition while Clementine sent him plaintive telegrams from St. Moritz -- "Heavenly if you could come here. Lovely colours in the snow for painting. Love. Clemmie."
But if there was no Winston on the ski slopes, there was General de Gaulle at lunch not long after the fall of France. When Clementine expressed the hope that the French fleet would be able to fight with the British, De Gaulle said he thought the navy would probably prefer to fire their guns at the British rather than with them.
Clementine scolded him at length in formal French. When Churchill tried to play a conciliatory role in the fracas, she said, "No, Winston, it is because there are certain things that a woman can say to a man which a man cannot say and I am saying them to you -- General de Gaulle!"
The General apologized with a basket of flowers.
Images of other political wives are called forth -- Joan Kennedy, pale and blond and nervous, led to the podium by her husband on announcement day; the memory of Martha Mitchell and the torment of her life; tight-lipped Pat Nixon, glazed in her own icy decorum.
"Of course my father could hardly have failed, with his genius and his enormous ability, but my mother was a real source of support. Politics is still a world where a wife can make a difference. Politicians can be tarnished by such small events. . . .
"She did sacrifice a lot for him," said Lady Soames, whose husband, Lord Soames, was himself a member of Parliament for 16 years. "If she had wanted nicer things or a whizzer time socially, it could have been very tough. But I don't think she ever grudged the course."