It was a one-question interview.
The question: Why another book on Churchill?
The answer: A half-hour torrent of words, gesticulations, theatrics and bursts of Churchill -- not an imitation at all, but an eerie re-creation of the man whom James Humes calls the Speaker of the Century in his book of that name.
Humes, a lecturer, White House speechwriter for the last three Republican presidents and a walking firestorm, grew up on Churchill. He met the great man at 18 in London (and does the meeting complete with handshake and that rumbling voice, "Young man, study history, study history . . ."), later came to know other members of the family in his State Department and UNESCO days.
"Churchill had a lisp and a stutter. He had no university education. He made it through sheer will. I had a lisp and sutter, too, when I was a kid. I lost my father early, too. I became the champion debater of Hill School. iAnd I was elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature at 27, the youngest ever, a year later than Churchill was elected to Parliament. I really feel I understand the man."
The Humes book concentrates on Churchill as speaker, examining in knowing detail the lisp ahd stutter, analyzing the oratory techniques and how they were refined over the years, studying the choice of words and images, and most of all, trying to show how those words and images changed the course of history.
Humes recounted how Churchill composed his great speech in the black days of Dunkirk, pacing back and forth in his bomb shelter, dictating all day and half the night to his secretary until his voice was a scratchy whisper. He muttered the phrases to himself, then repeated them aloud:
". . . we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills . . ." -- here Humes cast aside his still-unlit cigar and jumped up and paced the hushed chamber in the Cosmos Club. Grabbing the back of a chair, as Churchill had, on the point of tears, shaking with rage, defiance and an exalted pride, he shouted the final words: ". . . we shall Nevah Surrendah . . ."
This was the speech that, perhaps more than all the others, turned the whole British population into a fighting machine, that convinced Franklin Roosevelt this nation, unlike France, would not buckle under a Nazi invasion, and that appalled the Germans, who surely felt they sould be met by pitchfork-wielding farmers wherever they landed.
With relish Humes catalogued the qualities of Churchill as speaker, the intense preparation, the concentration, the imagination which are also, he noted, the qualities of leadership. He wished the American presidents would write their own major speeches instead of reading whatever some staff aides and pollsters put in front of them. The man whom Nixon called a walking Bartlett's mourned the passing of an age when children memorized poetry.
"I was brought up in the era of radio, when you had to imagine everything. It wasn't just set out for you, all passive."
He did a creditable Roosevelt and a fine Authony Eden, but he kept slipping back into Churchill almost as if unaware of it, and with the cigar (still waiting for the match) and the graying mane and the Dickensian paunch, he did bring back the great leader with poignant accuracy.
One fascinating sidelight Humes dug up was the fact that an old Democratic pol, the master orator Bourke Cockran, profoundly influenced Churchill, just as Cockran's final illness left the way open for Franklin Roosevelt to make his delayed rendezvous with destiny in the celebrated "Happy Warrior" nominating speech for Al Smith. Cockran had been a lover of Churchill's widowed mother and was the nearest thing to a father he ever had. The leonine veteran's speaking techniques rubbed off on the young man to an extent he never guessed.
Humes's immensely readable book is rich with anecdotes and one-liners about and by Churchill. It also lists some of the man's prophecies, which are not so widely known. In 1901 he predicted World War I; in 1905, the creation of Israel; in 1906, welfare legislation; in 1919 the Hilter-Stalin pact (though without naming Hitler, of course); in 1921, nuclear missiles: "might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power . . . to blast a township at a stroke . . . guided automatically by wireless and other rays without a human pilot . . ."
Unflagging, the 45-ish Humes at last lit the cigar and set off on his next interview. We could use a Churchill today, he growled. We could use someone who knows English language, who doesn't clog it up with Latinate abstractions and bloodless subjunctives.
"Not to knock Carter," he said, "It's too easy these days. But can't you imagine what Churchill would have done with him? 'Ineffectual?' No. He would never have used a mouthful of syllables like that. He would have called him 'feckless.' A word like that, you can put it in a headline. And you'd never forget it."