GEORGE W. CHAMBERLAIN….An inexperienced leader, facing a serious global threat, grows increasingly arrogant, spurns lawmakers, grabs unprecedented power, bullies skeptics, stifles the press, and decides to spurn the advice of seasoned hands and go it alone. Sound familiar?
Lynne Olson, author of a new book about the British Parliament replacing Neville Chamberlain with Winston Churchill in 1940, has a fascinating piece in the Washington Post today comparing our current president with the wartime British prime minister. Bush may claim the Churchillian legacy as his own — he reportedly keeps a “stern-looking bust” of Churchill in the Oval Office — but Olson makes the case that he has far more in common with Churchill’s predecessor.
Like Bush and unlike Churchill, Chamberlain came to office with almost no understanding of foreign affairs or experience in dealing with international leaders. Nonetheless, he was convinced that he alone could bring Hitler and Benito Mussolini to heel. He surrounded himself with like-minded advisers and refused to heed anyone who told him otherwise. […]
Like Bush, Chamberlain also laid claim to unprecedented executive authority, evading the checks and balances that are supposed to constrain the office of prime minister. He scorned dissenting views, both inside and outside government…. Likewise, Churchill almost certainly would look askance at the Bush administration’s years-long campaign to shut down public debate over the “war on terror” and the conflict in Iraq — tactics markedly similar to Chamberlain’s attempts to quiet his opponents. Like Bush and his aides, Chamberlain badgered and intimidated the press, restricted journalists’ access to sources and claimed that anyone who dared criticize the government was guilty of disloyalty and damaging the national interest.
Just as Bush has done, Chamberlain authorized the wiretapping of citizens without court authorization; Churchill was among those whose phones were tapped by the prime minister’s subordinates.
Olson makes a point of noting that these British prime ministers have become something of a Rorschach test: “People see in Churchill and Chamberlain what they want to see. They draw parallels between the 1930s and the events of today according to their own political philosophy.” That’s certainly true, and the Bush-Chamberlain comparison is imprecise.
But the similarities in attitude and style are nevertheless striking. Bush fancies himself a Churchill-like figure because the former prime minister was “resolute.” What the president neglects to understand is that Churchill was resolute in defense of principles and values that Bush rejects out of hand.
Rumor has it the president is reading Olson’s book now. Let’s hope he’s reading carefully.