John McCain would like to be seen as an American Winston Churchill. In a video put out by his team over the summer, McCain's image was intercut with shots of Churchill rallying the British people, and Churchill's exhortation to "never surrender" was played over pictures of McCain as a POW in Vietnam. In a dangerous world, he wants to convey a Churchillian defiance: the indefatigable patriot, the unflinching warrior, the bulwark against tyranny.
But the similarities between McCain and Churchill run much deeper than this. Americans revere Churchill for two reasons: as the man who stood up to the Nazis and who warned the West of the Iron Curtain that was descending across Europe after the Second World War. They ignore, or forget, the other side of Churchill's story: how his quixotic, reckless, cavalier temperament, over a long and chequered career, often led to disaster.
Like McCain, Churchill's near-death experiences of war and captivity as a young man seemed to reinforce his appetite for risk-taking, and his sense that politics only really makes sense when it is an all-or-nothing struggle. Churchill's default position was to raise the stakes, to sharpen the division between friend and enemy. McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate fits with this approach to politics: it is certainly brave, possibly foolhardy, and if it goes wrong (as it still might) the consequences won't be suffered by McCain alone. He'll take his party down with him.
Churchill's temperament perfectly suited that moment in British history when the stakes could not have been higher, and the struggle was indeed one of life or death. But at other times the Churchillian tendency to elevate politics into an existential crisis led to terrible misjudgements. Churchill almost risked his career in the 1930s by his insistence that Gandhi and Indian independence posed as serious a threat to the British way of life as Hitler and the Nazis. His recklessness and gambler's instincts equally made him a disastrous judge of military matters: from Gallipoli in the First World War to Norway in the Second, Churchill could not resist bold, ill-thought-out gestures, and when they went wrong, though it made him miserable, the suffering and misery were certainly not his alone.
McCain also shares Churchill's limited grasp of economics; Churchill was perhaps the worst Chancellor of the 20th century. He unquestionably made one of the worst financial decisions, when he returned Britain to the gold standard in 1925. This not only led to mass unemployment, a general strike and civil unrest at home. It also helped stoke the conditions that produced a global collapse at the end of the decade, out of which rose Nazism. The supreme existential challenge of Churchill's life was one that he himself had played no small part in helping bring about.
Like McCain, Churchill was in some ways above party politics. But, for most of his career, this did not mean he was a unifier so much as equally hated by both sides. McCain seems to arouse just the same sort of suspicion among many Republicans as Churchill did among Conservatives before 1940. Famously, Churchill changed party not once but twice. McCain flirted with being John Kerry's running mate in 2004 before returning to the Republican fold in 2008.
We tend to think Churchill's qualities are the ones to look for in a leader. But the truth is that they are only rarely what is needed – if Churchill's career is anything to go by, perhaps once in 50 years. American conservatives have long wished for a Churchill of their own, and now they have one, a man with many of the same traits, but few of the oratorical skills. It goes to show you should be careful what you wish for.
David Runciman is the author of 'Political Hypocrisy' (Princeton)
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