Paul Johnson, Churchill biographer, talks to WSJ





Paul Johnson is the most celebrated and best-loved British historian in America, especially by readers of a conservative bent. Astonishingly prolific, he has over three decades produced a series of serious best sellers, all of which present a refreshingly revisionist take on their subjects. Most controversial of all, perhaps, was his defense of Richard Nixon in his "A History of the American People." But there is plenty in each of his histories to startle readers used to conventional wisdom or the liberal conventions of academia.

Now, at 81 and after years of producing enormous, compulsively readable history books, Mr. Johnson has just written what, at 192 pages, is probably the shortest biography of Winston Churchill ever published....

The book includes refutations of many of the negative myths that have grown up around Churchill. For instance, that he was drunk for much of World War II. "He appeared to drink much more than he did," Mr. Johnson insists. "He used to sip his drinks very, very slowly, and he always watered his whisky and brandy."

Mr. Johnson certainly does not agree with the often-echoed criticism made by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin that Churchill had every gift except judgment: "He made occasional errors of judgment because he made so many judgments—some of them were bound to be wrong! . . . On the whole, his judgment was proved to be right. He was right before the First World War in backing a more decent civilized society when he and Lloyd George created the elements of old-age pensions and things like that. He was right about the need to face up to Hitler and he was right about the Cold War that the Russians had to be resisted and we had to rearm."...

At one point Mr. Johnson told me that "one of the marvelous things about Churchill is that whatever he was doing, whether fighting or arguing or despairing or bouncing about full of energy, jokes are never far away." And though Mr. Johnson believes his own best book is the highly praised "Birth of the Modern," his personal favorite is "Intellectuals," a collection of biting essays that take (mostly leftish) gurus like Voltaire and John Paul Sartre to task for personal failings ranging from adultery to incontinence. He likes it, he says, "because it has the best jokes. . . . Books must have jokes. People have to be amused because life is so sad."


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