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The ten lessons of Winston Churchill

speech 60 years ago at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.  Chris Matthews was honored this past weekend to deliver the keynote address commemorating this historic speech and remarkable man.
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speech 60 years ago at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.  Chris Matthews was honored this past weekend to deliver the keynote address commemorating this historic speech and remarkable man.  Below is the text of Chris's address.

I want to thank President Lamkin and the Westminster College Board of Trustees, Executive Director Rob Havers and the Board of Governors of the Winston Churchill Memorial and Library for this invitation of a lifetime - at least, so far.

The would have been an extraordinary human being even if he had not done what he did. What he did, of course, was save the honor of the 20th century.

Here’s what author Jon Meacham wrote in his masterful portrait of the great American-British partnership that helped win World War II:

"When Hitler dominated the Continent (in May of 1940), staring across the English Channel, Winston Churchill stood alone and stared back."

People ask me the guest I would have most liked on "Hardball." My answer is the British leader who was here sixty years ago this weekend.

Winston Churchill was a soldier, a historian, a statesman, a knight, a raconteur, a painter, a bricklayer, and every bit a smart-aleck as Jon Stewart.

Here’s what Winston Churchill said on meeting a high-toned Shakespearean actor:

"You are my fifth favorite actor. The first four are the Marx Brothers."

Here’s Churchill’s take on a political rival who was a vegetarian, a socialist, and a tee-totaller to boot:

"There but for the grace of God goes God."

Here’s how he described a tough-talking American secretary of state:

"He is the only bull I know who carries his china closet with him." You could say that about Dick Cheney.

Here’s another:

"Dogs look up at you, cats look down on you. Give me a pig! He looks you in the eye and treats you as an equal."

The greatest thing I have ever read of this great man who warned here of the "Iron Curtain" is that he was exactly who he seemed to be. In the middle of the night, after many rounds of whatever they were drinking, a visitor was warmed to discover that Churchill was an even more Winston Churchill than the public version. He was the genuine article right straight through.

This evening I want to share with you what I’ve come to learn from this man, important ways on how to get on in life. I offer them to you with tremendous confidence, not because nothing ever changes - lots of things change - but because some things don’t.

There’s a lot we can learn from Churchill, I’ve discovered, not just from what he said but what he managed to do in one life.

When he graduated from Sandhurst - Britain’s West Point - he went off to India where he saw action on the dangerous, tribal northwest frontier. For all we know, it’s where Osama Bin Laden might be hiding. Based on his relatively brief experience in actual combat, Churchill decided to write a handbook on military tactics, The Malakand Field Force.

The British establishment, politicians and high-ranking officers alike, couldn’t believe this squirt had the cheek to tell them how to fight a war.

Young Churchill, still barely out of school, next headed to the Sudan as part of the British expedition to retake Khartoum from the Islamic zealots who had risen up under the charismatic leader known as The Mahdi. The Mahdi was a Muslim nationalist - a combination of Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Iran’s Ahmadinejad. He had captured Khartoum, defeated the great British general Charles "Chinese" Gordon, chopped off his head and displayed it for all his disciples to see.

In retaking Khartoum, Churchill rode in the last cavalry charge of the British army. With that came another book, The River War, in which he dared criticize the great General Kitchener, his commanding officer, for desecrating the Mahdi’s tomb.

You gotta like this guy! He reminds me of another war veteran not afraid to take on the bigshots: Senator John McCain.

In 1899, still in his early twenties, Churchill ran for Parliament and lost. Undaunted, he headed off to South Africa and the Boer War as a newspaper correspondent. Captured by the enemy, he managed to climb over a latrine wall, hide himself on a train, and escape over the border to the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. Heading to Cape Town, he regained his commission in the army and returned to the fighting, in fact, to the exact spot where he was captured. He then went back to England, ran for Parliament again and won.

The year was 1900.

How can you not be impressed by this guy! As I said right up front, he would have been one of the great men of his age even if he had not done what he did at a time his new century would stand in the balance.

Starting in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Churchill was right about the Nazi threat when others, especially his own party, the Conservatives, were wrong. He saw Germany building both its military machine and its concentration camps.

In 1935, Hitler renewed military conscription in Germany and proclaimed the Luftwaffe the match for the Royal Air Force. But when Churchill warned that the Germans were building 150 planes a month, he was accused of "scaremongering."

In 1936, Hitler marched his armies into the Rhineland, an area the Germans were forced to demilitarize after World War I. Watching from London, the then-prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, told his country it had nothing to fear from Hitler.

In 1937, Britain’s next prime minister Neville Chamberlain offered to appease Hitler by handing over a few colonies in Africa. Churchill’s judgment?

"This has been a good week for dictators."

He then made a prediction. "The day will come when at some point or another, you will have to take a stand, and I pray to God when that day comes that we may not find, through an unwise policy, that we have to make that stand alone."

A month later, Hitler marched into Austria. A year later, at Munich, the world watched as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain handed over much of Czechoslovakia to Hitler. At home the British people counted him, Chamberlain, a hero. Bucking public opinion, Churchill called the giveaway a "totally and unmitigated defeat."

"And do not suppose that this is the end," he warned his country. "This is only the beginning of the reckoning."

On September 1, claiming Germany had been invaded, Hitler attacked Poland. The Second World War had begun. Churchill, brought back as First Lord of the Admiralty, pointed to the dangers of neutrality.

"Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last."

Now came Churchill’s and Britain’s finest hour. In May of 1940, the same day Hitler’s panzers began their blitz across Europe, our man became prime minister. With Holland, Denmark, and Belgium quickly overrun and France, England’s last fighting ally, about to sign an armistice, with a quarter of a million British troops, the country’s entire army, stranded at the French port city of Dunkirk, Churchill refused to quit.

"Of course, whatever happens in Dunkirk," he told his cabinet, "we shall fight on."

And that he did.

Just as he was the first to see the horror of Hitler, he saw, also very early, the gathering menace of Soviet communism. When he came here to Westminster College in March 1946, he saw Josef Stalin grabbing and holding all the territory of Eastern and Central Europe the Red Army had won in battle. And, of course, he saw the Curtain going up between freedom and the lack of it.

I was there in 1989 when the Iron Curtain came down. I was there in Budapest in April, when nothing yet seemed possible, talking with a professor from Karl Marx University who said things were happening. He and his colleagues were watching Boris Yeltsin stand up to the Soviet order in Moscow and that got their hopes up. "Freedom is contagious," he told me and a British journalist late one afternoon over tea and cookies.

By September, the Hungarian government dared to tear down the barbed wire on its western frontier, allowing thousands of East Germans to escape to the west. Within the year, Hungary was a democratic republic and the professor who chatted with me about freedom being "contagious" was its foreign minister.

In East Berlin that November of 1989, I stood on a cold, drizzly night talking to people on the eastern, communist side of the Brandenburg Gate. The Saturday before, the East Germans had let people pass through the Berlin Wall for the first time. There was a rumor that the East Germans were going to open the Brandenburg Gate itself, a symbol of east-west division, between freedom and its absence.

I moved around in that crowd of East Germans asking everyone I could make eye contact with what "freedom" meant to them.

"Was ist Freiheit?" I kept asking. A crowd built around me with people chipping in their thoughts. In that cold, wet night on the communist side of the Berlin Wall, I had stirred up my first "Hardball" show. Finally, I came to a young guy - he was a wearing an army surplus jacket like the kind we wore in the Sixties.

This young guy looked me in the eye and said, "This is Freiheit, this standing in a public place arguing openly about such things as democracy, capitalism and socialism." "Four weeks ago," a young nurse jumped in, "we couldn’t have done this."

So talking to me was freedom. Don’t think I’ll forget that moment.

Today we live in a different danger arising between east and west. It’s not a wall of brick and mortar or a curtain of iron. Just the opposite, a newspaper in Denmark publishes some incendiary cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. From that small lighting of a fuse, the Islamic world explodes in protest. What we have here is not a failure to communicate but a world that is as wired politically and religiously as it is electronically. So hooked up east to west, north to south, through round-the-world time zones that we find ourselves in one of those old-time pinball machines where every hostile word or act bounces globally, flashing every light, ringing every bell.

What we need are people - especially at the top - who know how to lead in this new environment - how to be true democratic leaders who champion their values in a way that unites rather than divides.

What I can offer you is a down payment on that kind of leadership. It’s a legacy really. Here, on this great anniversary occasion, I offer you the principles, the traits, the joys that Winston Churchill taught me, and reasons why he’s a hero, perhaps the greatest hero to those who want a better world, who dream of great leaders who will get us through all this.


Churchill loved the political life from the start.

Here he is describing to his girlfriend Pamela Plowdon what it was like being in his first campaign. The year is 1899:

"It has been a strange experience and I shall never forget the succession of great halls packed with excited people until there was not room for a single person more - speech after speech, meeting after meeting - three even four in one night - intermittent flashes of heat & light & enthusiasm - with cold air and the rattle of a carriage in between: a great experience. And I improve every time - I have hardly repeated myself at all."

Churchill loved the give-and-take, the wild, over-the-top language politics permits.

Here’s what he said of the haughty, difficult French General Charles deGaulle:

"We all have our crosses to bear. Mine is the Cross of Lorraine."

"He looks like a female llama who has just been surprised in her bath."

But as colorful as Churchill could be in lampooning his rivals, he bore no grudges.

Here’s his secretary Jock Colville who worked with him through much of his high-pressure career.

"He behaved in public just as he behaved in private. There were no two faces, no mask that would drop when the audience had retired."

When Lord Beaverbrook was asked to name Churchill’s chief virtue, the best thing about the man, the great press lord said "magnanimity."

"Anger is a waste of energy," Churchill said. "Steam which is used to blow off a safety valve would be better used to drive the engine."

As prime minister Harold MacMillan said of Churchill:

"He was a warrior and party debate was a war. It mattered and he brought to that war the conquering weapon of words fashioned for their purpose - to wound, never to kill; to influence, never to destroy."

In those years back when I worked for the Congress, I used to love Thursday nights. It was when the House would vote on final passage of a bill that they’d been arguing about all week. I remember one Thursday night just as the floor was emptying after the big vote. I saw a member from the Republican side of the aisle crossing over to where a member from the other side was sitting. It was down in the first row near the well.

"What are you doing this weekend?" the Republican said to the Democrat. "Say hello to your wife for me." And he was off.

Both men had been arguing red-faced at each other not long before. I think if Jefferson and Madison and all the others who designed this country could see that they would say this is what we wanted. This is it, the thing we risked our necks for.

This is the way it’s supposed to work. "Congress" means coming together. It’s the whole idea. You don’t mail it in or telephone or e-mail it in. You meet, get used to each other, form something of a community. You at least see the other side. You compromise and you get it done. You get things done for your country.


"All the years I have been in the House of Commons," Churchill once said, "I have always said to myself one thing: Do Not Interrupt! - and I have never been able to keep to that resolution."

Neither have I.

Neither was Churchill. He was forever speaking out.

Elected to parliament as a Tory, he used one of his first speeches - after just three months in the Commons - to attack the party leadership for a military budget he called excessive.

And because he spoke up in the 1930s against the rising danger of Adolf Hitler, he had the "street cred" to lead Britain in the 1940s.

Sometimes the true patriot must resist the call-to-arms, just as Churchill did when he broke in those early months of his career with the conservative party leadership.

What was missing in this country between 9/11 and the war in Iraq, were people who spoke up, who dared to raise the full consequences of going into Iraq.

So much of what is happening today - after the loss of 2,000 Americans, 30,000 Iraqis, a trillion dollars and the goodwill of the world - was knowable before we got ourselves involved over there.

Brent Scowcroft, who was the first President Bush’s chief national security advisor, James A. Baker, who was his secretary of state, the former president himself all knew the dangers that lay in Iraq, the historic sectarian hostility, the real prospect of civil war. They had seen all of this coming when they decided against invading in 1991.

I believe it is the duty of public leaders who know something to say it!

Here’s how Churchill put it:

"Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable."

I once worked for Senator Edmund Muskie, who lost his race for president back in 1972. On the night of his 1976 election to the Senate from Maine - a difficult state for a Democrat in those days, Muskie told those of us on his staff - after a few drinks:

"The only reason to be in politics is to be out there all alone and then be proven right."

Which brings me to Churchill’s third lesson.


When I grew up in Philadelphia, the mayor, the fire chief and the police chief were all standing on the curb during a four-alarm fire.

They were present on the scene and they fed the press the information as they got it.

That’s the key to it! - show up, and tell the truth as you get it - no "rolling disclosure" feeding it out when you’ve got yourself covered - or when it’s politically convenient.

Here is Eleanor Roosevelt on Churchill’s wartime candor:

"To explain to one’s country that there must be a long period while the military forces are being trained and armed, during which production will be one of the most important factors, and that meanwhile people must be patient and hope at best ‘to hold the line’ is no easy or popular thing to do. I always had great admiration for the way in which Mr. Churchill did this. In some ways he was more blunt with the people of Great Britain than my husband ever was with us."

In England’s hour of peril Churchill was brutally candid, ready to lay out the worst.

People trusted him because he believed the British people could stand the truth; indeed, they demanded it.

When Singapore fell in February of 1942:

"I speak to you all under the shadow of a heavy and far-reaching military defeat," he said in a national broadcast.

When Tobruk fell in June 1942, he told the House - after beating back a vote of censure:

"Some people assume too readily that, because a Government keeps cool and has steady nerves under reverses, its members do not feel the public misfortunes as keenly as do independent critics. On the contrary, I doubt whether anyone feels greater sorrow or pain than those who are responsible for the general conduct of our affairs."

"Tell the truth to the British people. They are a tough people, a robust people. They may be a bit offended at the moment, but if you have told them exactly what is going on, you have insured yourself against complaints and reproaches which are very unpleasant when they come home on the morrow of some disillusion.

The worst thing, he said, was to promise good news and stand there as it is dashed.

"There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away. The British people can face peril or misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy, but they bitterly resent being deceived or finding that those responsible for their affairs are themselves dwelling in a fool’s paradise."

"I must point out that the British nation is unique in this respect. They are the only people who like to be told how bad things are, who like to be told the worst, and like to be told that they are very likely to get much worse in the future and must prepare themselves for further reverses."

I wonder if the British are that "unique."


Churchill knew that national morale was everything. That’s why he told the British people in his most famous address to "brace" themselves.

His talk of Britain serving in its "finest hour" went to his people’s notion of themselves.

Roosevelt knew it, too. Remember what he said on taking office in the depths of the Great Depression? "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

Or young President Kennedy’s calls in the early 1960s for the "the New Frontier," his championing of the space race, his creation of the Peace Corps.

Or Ronald Reagan and how he talked in 1984 of the "the boys" who won at Normandy forty years before, his tribute to the astronauts who had just perished aboard the Challenger.

As Churchill said as he left the premiership for the last time in 1955 - "man is spirit."

Name a leader who did not know this.


A very smart Canadian pollster once told me that leaders in any country share three great attributes: motive, passion and spontaneity.

Ask any politician or office-holder "Why are you there?"

For Abraham Lincoln, it was to end the expansion of slavery and, later, to save the union

For F-D-R it was the cause of "the forgotten man," then the defeat of Hitler.

For Ronald Reagan - and every cab driver knew it - it was to bring down communism abroad and big government at home.

"In politics when you are in doubt," as Churchill said way back in 1927, "do nothing." "In politics, when you are in doubt what to say, say what you really think."

Polling and the constant positioning and re-positioning it encourages, are the bain of today’s politics.

I’ll take motive, true motive, every time. It explains why Reagan, of all our recent Presidents, rose to one of the top echelon of presidents and may well remain there.


The great broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow once introduced a volume of Winston Churchill’s recorded speeches by saying:

"The voice you are about to hear is that of the only man who ever prophesized history, made history and recorded history."

Here’s what Churchill himself said:

"The farther back you can look, the farther forward you can see."


Churchill would not have been Churchill had he not gotten out there in his youth, seen the world, proven himself, earned stories to tell. My two years in Africa, including all the crazy hitchhiking and other experiences, were my door-opener to politics, journalism, everything that’s big out there.


Churchill used the money he made writing about the first world war to buy his beloved Chartwell. He lived the life of an aristocrat, never, ever, venturing into a kitchen or traveling, even to war, without a valet. But he paid for his extravagances himself, supporting his taste for luxury with his verbal eloquence. He made his living, as he put it, by his "pen" and by his "tongue."

One of my favorite images of him, drawn by his popular American biographer, William Manchester, is of Churchill working hard in the after hours, dictating and editing well into the morning.

"It’s eleven o’clock. Churchill sees his overnight guests to their rooms and, as they retire, begins his working day. Only after entering his employ will one of his people discover that Churchill lacks a large private income, that he lives like a pasha yet must support his extravagant life with his pen. The Churchill children are also unaware that, as his daughter Mary would later put it, the family "literally lived from book to book, and from one article to the next."

Or, as his granddaughter, my friend Celia Sandys puts it, from "pen to mouth."

He had to.

"I have had to earn every penny I possessed but there has never been a day in my life," he said, "when I could not order a bottle of champagne for myself and offer another to a friend."

All those lectures, all those newspaper stories for money, all the hack writing for money; all the writing of history was also for money.

"I am easily satisfied," he once said, "with the best."


I’m impressed by the number of elections Churchill lost.

There was that first time he ran for Parliament - 1899 - before he headed to South Africa.

He lost again when he joined the Liberal government in 1908 and had to face a special election. The party had to find him another district where he could win.

He lost three times in the 1920s.

After some surgery at that time, he said he found himself "without an office, without a seat, without a party, and without an appendix."

He and his party got killed in 1945.

Here’s Ánthony Eden, who served as Britain’s foreign minister for so many years, then succeeded him as prime minister:

"Courage for some sudden act, maybe in the heat of battle, we all respect, but there is that still rarer courage which can sustain repeated disappointment, unexpected failure, and shattering defeat. Churchill had that too and had need of it, not for a day, but for weeks and months and years."

He lost a half a dozen elections in his life, but had nothing but contempt for those who loved the word "democracy" but rejected free elections.

"Democracy is not some harlot in the street to be picked up by some man with a Tommy gun," he said. "Democracy is based on reason, a sense of fair play, and freedom and a respect for other people."

Finally - -


"Solitary trees," this great man would say of his early lonely youth, "if they grow at all, grow strong."

I owe John Lukacs for his splendid look at Churchill’s greatest moment.

"Of course," Churchill said matter-of-factly to the British cabinet on May 28, 1940, that day when all seemed lost and Hitler had all the marbles, "whatever happens in Dunkirk, we shall fight on."

He said that when some respectable people in Britain would have cut a deal and let Hitler rule much of Europe."

What gave Churchill the stuff for that?

After his escape from the Boers and on his way home from Cape Town, Vanity Fair wrote of him: ‘He is a clever fellow who has the courage of his opinions… He can write and he can fight… he has hankered after Politics since he was a small boy, and it is probable that his every effort, military or literary, has been made with political bent… He is something of a sportsman; who prides himself on being practical rather than a dandy; he is ambitious; he means to get on, and he loves his country. But he can hardly be the slave of any party.’

Got that right!

When the Conservatives turned sharply protectionist, Churchill didn’t hesitate to quit the party and join the free-trader Liberals.

20 years later, with Socialism on the rise, he switched back. Anyone can "rat" he said, it takes someone special to "re-rat."

This independent streak showed itself earlier, way back when he was at Harrow.

Lady Randolph was too busy with social affairs to show up for a visit to her young son. So young Winston invited his nanny, Mrs. Everest. He was so proud of her that he paraded her up and down the High Street at Harrow. The boy who recorded the sight thought it a very great tribute to young Churchill’s character.

I like to ask college students what is that each of them would stand up for? What position do each of you hold that you know possibly everyone else in this room disagrees with on yet you’d still stand up and declare your conviction?

Sixty years ago, Winston Churchill, thrown out of office by the British electorate, stood here to once again say the unpopular thing. As David McCullough tells us in his great biography of Harry Truman, who accompanied Churchill here, the immediate reaction to the "Iron Curtain" speech was negative. Newspaper editors accused Churchill of poisoning relations between America and the Russians. One of the great columnists of the day called Churchill’s speech an "almost catastrophic blunder." President Truman was so shook he offered to send the battleship Missouri to Moscow to pick up Josef Stalin and bring him here to your campus so that he would get equal time with Churchill.

But in sixty years has anyone challenged, credibly, what the great man said here? Even in its last days you could feel the repression, the captivity, the inhuman crushing behind that Iron Curtain. I know. I could feel it.

Did it bother Churchill to once again be speaking out that first year about World War II when everyone would not? Did it bother him to come here to Fulton to speak the truth, to give what he called that day the most important speech of his life?

Not a bit. Here he is, six years after the "Iron Curtain" speech, re-elected as Britain’s prime minister enjoying a heated moment in the House of Commons.

"The spectacle of a number of middle-aged gentlemen who are my political opponents being in a state of uproar and fury is really quite exhilarating to me."

Churchill was a soldier, foreign correspondent, author, politician, painter, but also, as I said, a serious bricklayer.

"Are you sure it will hold?" Lord Halifax asked Churchill as he sat on a garden wall to which his host had laid bricks.

Churchill was furious.

But yes, it has held, all of it.

Winston Churchill would not be at home among many of today’s politicians. He would have kept his cigar lit in the White House, whatever the reigning culture. He would have disliked the company of politicians whose every position is pre-tested before a focus group, screened by pollsters and then scripted for fashion and political correctness.

"The only guide to a man is his conscience;" he said, "the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsettings of our calculations; but with this shield, however, the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour."

He said this in that last lonely month before America joined him in the great battle against Hitler.

Where other politicians cling to office, he acted as if he were truly prepared to fling it away, to risk popular rejection, which came to him on so many cruel occasions, rather than be the person he was not. He didn’t worry what his critics thought, didn’t ask what someone else’s definition of "is" was. He wrote his own speeches because no one else but he had the sentiment, the knowledge, the passion to write for Winston Churchill.

The goal of World War II, this great man said, was "to revive the status of man." He wanted to raise up the individual beyond the reach of the Hitlers and Stalins of this world.

"What is the use of living," he asked, "if it be not to strive for nobler causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?"

Watch each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.