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London's Mayor On Winston Churchill: He Saved Civilization


Winston Churchill was a writer, an orator and a Tory. So is Boris Johnson and now Mayor Johnson of London has written a book about the man whose name has been turned into an adjective, Churchillian, that can be used to describe eloquence, fortitude and/or drunkenness. Mayor Johnson's book is called "The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History" and Scott Simon spoke with him earlier this week.


SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: You say that a successful Democratic leader has to identify with the people that he or she wants to lead and I find it interesting to hear the ways in which you think Churchill, despite being in so many ways obviously different, more accomplished, sometimes more reviled than any other man in England at some point, managed to have these notes of identity with the British public.

MAYOR BORIS JOHNSON: He did. He was amazingly good at catching the public mood and seeming to, personally, to incarnate, to embody something of the eccentricity of the British - or they like to think of as their own eccentricity - and he was very calculated sometimes in the way he would stall himself with his cigar, his bowties, his slightly mannered way of speaking and he knew that he had this immense theatrical appeal, but he was always very careful and clever in his use of language.

SIMON: What about humor though?

JOHNSON: He certainly understood that the electorate love jokes and they love somebody who seemed able to tell jokes and there's always been a strong, you know, Shakespearean, Fallstaffian tradition in Britain of admiring people who are able to make fun - and also to some extent, make fun of themselves. I mean, there's a famous story of how in the war, a terrible moment when one of his ministers is - I'm afraid, Tory ministers - caught with a guardsmen on a Hyde Park bench at 6 o'clock in the morning in February the dark days of the war and this awful news was brought to Churchill at Chartwell by the Chief Whip who said, you know, very, very bad, I'm afraid you'll have to go. And Churchill paused after hearing this unhappy tale and without looking around he said, you mean to say that so-and-so was caught with a guardsman? Yes, sir. On a park bench? Yeah, I'm afraid so Prime Minister. At 6 o'clock in the morning? That seems to be the case, rather. In this weather? Good God - it makes you proud to be British.

SIMON: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: And I think that not only illustrates his humor, I - for my money, what that tells us about Churchill and the point I was trying to get over in the book is his greatness of soul. You know, that was fundamentally the thing that drew me to him and he really was - there wasn't an of ounce of malice in him and most of his political friends and enemies agreed on that. He was remarkable in that respect.

SIMON: Do we forget when we cast back to that period when Churchill became the historical figure we know today and the most famous - just about the most famous person in the world - do we forget how many plausible, admirable people in his own country thought it was wise for Britain to sue for peace?

JOHNSON: Scott, that is absolutely right and so that's why it's so important to focus on that period in May 1940, when he really, you know, he takes the steering wheel of history, as it were, and he turns it in the right direction and from that moment on - May 1940 - within a year, there were 30,000 British men, women and children who had died as a result of the Nazis and yet, it was the right thing to do to fight on, to oppose Hitler, to stop a racist, brutal anti-Semitic tyranny taking over in the whole of Europe. That was completely the right thing to do. The history of the world would've been utterly different if he hadn't been at the wheel and we owe him a great deal. An incredible guy and I think that, British kids in particular, I think all kids around the world should know about him and should remember him.

SIMON: So the most popular Tory conservative politician in Great Britain at the moment, I believe, according to the polls is a writer and former journalist?

JOHNSON: No, no, no, no. Well, go on. Who is it?

SIMON: I believe it's you, Mr. Mayor.

JOHNSON: Oh, no - If only. No, I'm very proud to be the mayor of London, but I'm also, as you may have picked up, I'm campaigning again to return to Parliament.

SIMON: You would not stand for party leader?

JOHNSON: I am backing our leader, my Prime Minister, David Cameron and I think he's got every chance of pulling it off and that's - but, you know, I think the great thing about this book, Scott, is that...

SIMON: That was a very artful turn, Mr. Mayor.

JOHNSON: It wasn't really. It was pretty clunky, let's face it.

SIMON: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: But the truth is that what I've found - I'm quite serious because I think a lot of people have made these sort of very superficial comparisons between Johnson the author and Churchill the subject - but actually, when I start to talk to people then what they want to hear about is Churchill and I think people are just amazed by the guy.

SIMON: Mayor Boris Johnson of London. His new book, "The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History." Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHNSON: Thanks very much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.