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  • Winston Churchill and the Literary History of Politics
  • Jonathan Rose (bio)

In February 2002, when the world was debating what should be done about Iraq, Europeans reached for a metaphor they like to apply to Americans. President Bush and his advisors, they protested, were behaving like Hollywood cowboys. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, R. James Woolsey, the former director of the CIA, accepted that label as a badge of pride. Yes, he agreed, you could compare us to Gary Cooper in High Noon (his favorite movie). When evildoers descended on his town, only he was willing to stand up to them. His neighbors all turned out to be appeasers or pacifists or cowards or potential collaborators, but the marshal wouldn’t “give up doing his duty just because everyone else found excuses to stay out of the fight.”1

Meanwhile, Dominique de Villepin, secretary general to the president of France, and soon to become French foreign minister, spun out a parallel but different narrative. He had just published Le Cent Jours ou l’Esprit de Sacrifice, his account of Waterloo, another legendary gunfight. In his review, Denis MacShane, Britain’s minister for Europe, called it “simply a thrilling read . . . . His description of characters is as good as any popular historian and his sense of narrative pace carries the reader along,” though the book might leave one with the impression that Napoleon won the battle. Waterloo, wrote de Villepin, “glows with the aura worthy of a victory.” As a diplomat and as a prolific author, he has always insisted that France cannot be France unless she pursues “epic collective adventures.”2

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Dominique de Villepin appearing on the BBC program Hard Talk, September 2013.

So here we have two nations following two narratives on a collision course, an episode that illustrates the power of stories to steer politics. You may object that politics is really a matter of national interests, but that begs the question: What are nations interested in? Of course they want power, wealth, trade, land, and security. But political actors also act out stories, which can have a force and a momentum of their own and may not always serve the more material kind of national interests. Foreign policies inspired by Napoleon or Gary Cooper do not necessarily benefit France or the United States, and they may not have profited the personal interests of M. Chirac or Mr. Bush. But all politicians tell stories, whether they are grand Bonapartist myths or homey Reaganesque anecdotes, and these stories can drive policy. After all, a few years ago Americans catapulted an obscure politician into the White House largely because we loved reading his life story.

All politicians are authors. Very few of them write anything like an 800-page critique of French poetry, as Dominique de Villepin has, but they all create and publish texts: oral texts, printed texts, filmed texts, broadcast texts. Most politicians, like most authors, are hacks who simply recycle cliches; a few are genuinely creative visionaries. But either way, what they write (or have others write) sets politics in motion. And obviously all politicians are actors, usually performing from a crafted script, but occasionally doing improv.

Therefore, we can write political history as literary history. That is, we gain a deeper understanding of politics if we employ the methods developed by literary historians, especially theater historians and historians of the book. We can ask of politicians the same questions that these scholars ask of authors. What did they read? When they wrote, what were their generic models? How were their writings refashioned by editors, publishers, literary agents, researchers, coauthors, lawyers, and censors? How were their political careers made and unmade by the sociology and economics of authorship, print technology, the structure of media ownership, the machinery of publicity and distribution, book reviewers, and the demands of the literary marketplace? How did they achieve the kind of dramatic effects that are so important in politics? Which literary circles did these political actors move in? Which audiences did they appeal to? How did readers respond to what they wrote, and did that feedback cause them to revise their methods of composition...


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pp. 5-7
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