In the Footsteps of Churchill: A Study in Character, By Richard Holmes, Basic Books, 351 pp., $27.50
Tracking the reputation of Winston Churchill can be daunting. He has been hailed for steadfast leadership and at times attacked for recklessness. An act of Congress in 1963 made him the first honorary US citizen, and a 2002 BBC poll declared him ''the greatest Briton." Still, some critics have denounced him as an imperialist, an elitist, even a warmonger.
Richard Holmes, in this new biography, stands squarely on Churchill's side, lauding the prime minister's matchless valor and eloquence. He attributes Churchill's success to a bedrock belief both in himself and in the decency of the British people. Holmes's background as a military historian gives him a special angle, enabling him to offer pointed assessments of Churchill's strengths and weaknesses as soldier, strategist, and leader.
Holmes also brings to his task a willingness to challenge and criticize. He is never guilty of idolizing his subject, noting that Churchill was ''completely right about as often as he was hopelessly wrong." Recounting Churchill's progression from self-centered young man to glory-seeking soldier to politician and statesman, Holmes's tone varies: sometimes admiring, sometimes skeptical and disapproving. While countering the assertions of Churchill's detractors, Holmes faults Churchill for his role in what he terms ''the great betrayal," the British government's failures in World War I and in the peace that followed.
From the outset, Holmes's narrative yields surprises. He punctures the myth (created largely by Churchill himself) of Winston the neglected child, shunted off to boarding schools by his glamorous, indifferent parents.
Drawing on family letters, Holmes shows the youthful Churchill as insatiable in his demands for attention; throughout his life, Holmes suggests, Churchill retained a childlike egocentricity, an expectation that others would indulge his needs and whims.
Holmes ties Churchill's enormous ambition, in part, to the example of his father, Lord Randolph, leader of the House of Commons. The two never became close, and Randolph's early death left Churchill feeling deprived and convinced he would die young. He became, Holmes notes, the proverbial ''young man in a hurry." Propelling him forward as well was a ''sense of destiny," a conviction that his illustrious lineage and experiences in battle were preparing him for something momentous.
Churchill switched parties several times. Holmes illuminates his core beliefs, portraying him as a Burkean conservative who trusted in people, traditions, and institutions, not grand theories. He examines Churchill's positions on a variety of issues: empire, labor, trade, reform, and dictatorship. Occasionally, Holmes lapses into stridency, as when he refers to the ''troglodyte proletarianism" of post-World War I era leftists. There and elsewhere he could have simply presented the facts and let the reader decide.
Holmes concentrates on Churchill's career, delineating the brilliant man of action. We can't help but wonder about a more contemplative side to his nature, especially when Holmes includes a wistful quotation from Churchill, the artist: ''Happy are the painters for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end . . . of the day." Churchill's imposing public presence likely obscured many fine shadings in his character.