Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on this date in 1940. He often said he would not call those dark days, but stern days. OK, how stern were they? The German army, the Wehrmacht, had just overrun Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg and was driving deeply into France. The small British Expeditionary Force was being cut off and reduced to a small pocket around Dunkirk, on the English Channel. T he German air force, the Luftwaffe, was spreading terror among the citizens of bombed-out towns and villages and strafing panicked civilians as they clogged the roads -- making the roads impassable to French and British relief columns.
Historian John Lukacs and many others say that this was Hitler's great opportunity. With Britain's troops stranded on the French coast, Hitler might have parachuted 10,000 crack commandos into the heart of London and taken the country by shock and awe.
Still, Churchill did not say he was afraid. When he was finally selected -- at the advanced age of 65 -- to be Prime Minister, he achieved the ambition of a lifetime. Here's what he said about that:
Thus, then, on the night of the 10th of May, at the outset of this mighty battle, I acquired the chief power in the State. ... During these last crowded days of the political crisis my pulse had not quickened at any moment. I took it all as it came. But I cannot conceal from the reader of this truthful account that as I went to bed at about 3 a.m. I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Ten years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary party antagonisms. My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.
We certainly know that President Obama does not like Winston Churchill. He blames Churchill for the torture of his grandfather, who was born in Kenya. The president tossed the bust of Churchill out of the Oval Office as one of his first official acts.
But contrast Churchill's reaction to coming to power in those sternest of days with the president's reaction to his own finest hour. At a time when the whole world should applaud his order for the killing of Osama bin Laden, President Obama spoils the effect of this splendid victory in the war on terror by going on Sixty Minutes and emoting about how nervous he was. "It was the longest 40 minutes of my life," he confessed.
Mr. President, with all due respect, pipe down! Don't spill your guts on national TV. In leading us against the terrorists, it's your job to spill their guts. And, by the way, you should show the photograph of bin Laden. You were surely right to deep six his corpse. As one cartoonist fearlessly put it, bin Laden is sleeping with 72 sturgeons! If the reason you sent in the SEALs was to prove to the world we had Al Qaeda's number one killer, the photo confirming all that should have been released at the same time.
Do you think Western media was afraid of enraging the Italian fascists in 1945? Newspapers throughout the world showed photos of the executed dictator Benito Mussolini strung up by his heels in a Milan gas station. Il Duce strutted no more.
Rush Limbaugh took issue with the photo you did release. He said it made you look like a little boy in the Situation Room with the big boys. He has a point there.
Ronald Reagan was an American president who was not ashamed to take cues from Winston Churchill. When President Reagan addressed the British House of Commons in 1982, he wore a tie that was most unusual for him, a regimental striped tie of dark red, blue, and white. Only on closer inspection did we learn it was the colors of the Royal Air Force, the brave young warriors who saved Britain from what Churchill called the "Nozzie" peril.
I had the privilege of drafting a letter for President Reagan to Congress when I served in the federal Education Department. The topic was the teaching of phonics. My draft included this line: "Unless we teach the rising generation using phonics, I fear that they will lack the building blocks of literacy." I was proud of that draft and shared my joy with my friends over lunch that day.
When I returned from lunch, my draft letter was sitting on my desk. The line that included the phrase I fear that was circled in a lurid red. In the margin, was this scarlet note: This president has concerns. He has no fears.
A quarter of a century later, I still cherish that rebuke. I want my president to have concerns, but not fears. I don't want him to go on television and kvetch. I want my president to walk with destiny.
Robert Morrison is a Washington writer and former Reagan administration official.