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Wit and Wisdom

Blair Farley asks us to confirm Churchill’s reflection, very apropos these days:

“I have always felt that a politician is to be judged by the animosities he excites among his opponents.”

Indeed it is his remark. Churchill had risen to give the toast to the Institute of Journalists in 1906. See Robert Rhodes James., ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963 (New York: Bowker, 1974, 7 vols.), I: 693-94. Since this was a short and amusing speech, we publish it in entirety.

The laughs at the beginning were over his references to the heavy criticism in the press of the new Liberal government, of which he was a part. His later reference to The Times Book Club—which produced cheap editions of current books—was likely prompted by his current feud with the Book Club, which had brought out a cheap edition of his current best-seller, Lord Randolph Churchill. WSC believed a cheap edition was premature, and would cut into the sales of the standard edition.)


THE PRESS

Winston S. Churchill
November 17, 1906
Institute of Journalists Dinner, London

As a member of the Government I would like to pay a small tribute to the London press, which always says so many kind things about the Government—(laughter)—and can always be relied upon all occasions and in all difficulties to give their unflinching and unstinted support. (Laughter.) Still, even if there were any doubt of the Government being sustained at every stage by the exertions of the press, I am inclined to think we might be able to pull through–in a sort of way. (Laughter.)

It is astonishing to a public man to notice how keenly sensitive of journalistic criticism is the ordinary private person. Whatever may happen he always desires to keep up appearances in the press. (Laughter.) I heard a story of an American editor who one night received the following letter from a prominent citizen: “Dear Sir, I regret to inform you that on my way home from the saloon this evening I fell into a political altercation with Colonel Jonas D. Walker, of this town, in the course of which a slight misunderstanding arose, and I am very sorry to think that in the end I shot him. I should add that, carried away by the excitement of the moment, I also scalped him. (Laughter.) But I earnestly hope that no exaggerated account of this painful episode will appear in the columns of your paper.” (Renewed laughter.)

If any public man in this country had been drawn into such a doubtful action, he would have been haunted by no fears like those which beset the writer. He would know that there were two sides to the question, and that if one section of the press took one view the other section would express the opposite. He would go to bed with the full consciousness of being able to read in the Daily News next morning that another blow had been struck on the side of liberty—(laughter)—that there had been another exhibition of moral indignation in a righteous cause, and that no great popular movement had been carried to success without occasional acts of violence. (More laughter.)

The Times, on the other hand, would insist that the perpetrator of the deed should be brought to book–I might almost say brought to the Book Club. (Laughter.) He would be reminded that his methods of conducting political arguments were unworthy of a civilised age and invited to refer to the methods of the manager of the “Times” Book Club. (Laughter.)

Politicians do well always to pay close attention to anything said about them in the press of a civil nature. This civility is only a mark of the high standard that journalism has reached in this country. For my own part I have always felt that a politician is to be judged by the animosities which he excites among his opponents. I have always set myself not merely to relish but to deserve thoroughly their censure. (Laughter and cheers.)

I asked myself whether the power of the press is as great as ever. If considered by the increased output, I would say that the power of the press has increased lately. The machinery of the press grows more and more powerful, but do the writers get more and more powerful? I am inclined to think that journalism is hampered rather than aided by the ever-growing force of its machinery.

The French press is not nearly so wealthy or so well equipped as the British, but French journalists individually play their part in the political control of their country. There the Chambers are divided between the politicians and the journalists; in England Parliament is controlled by lawyers and Scotsmen. (Laughter.)

In England, the individual writer ought to exert a greater influence than is the case at present. The signed article, I think, ought to be a much more prominent feature in British journalism than is the case to-day. (Hear, hear.) I gladly propose the toast because the Journalists’ Institute gives journalists a sense of corporate existence, and enables them to be sure that in any great point of principle they will not have to fight single-handed. The Institute has a lofty mission to perform and exercises a high standard in the manner of performing it. (Cheers.)


Along the same lines was Churchill’s riposte in the House of Commons, 21 May 1952, when the Labour opposition were rising in heated protest at one of his speeches:

“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.”

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