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    Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

    July 6, 2024  | 

    In an extraordinary gesture of trust, the American president left Washington, D.C., on September 9, 1943, and handed the British prime minister his keys. “Winston, please treat the White House as your home. Invite anyone you like to any meals, and do not hesitate to summon any of my advisers with whom you wish to confer.” Winston Churchill had been staying at the White House for more than a week and Franklin Roosevelt was departing for his country home in Hyde Park, N.Y. “I availed myself fully of these generous facilities,” Churchill later wrote. Assembling the British and American chiefs of staff, he led a meeting on the invasion of Italy. One onlooker wondered whether “there has ever existed between the war leaders of two allied nations a relationship so intimate as that revealed by this episode.”

    Churchill knew how to make himself comfortable at the White House. During World War II, he stayed there four times and visited Roosevelt four times more at Hyde Park, spending a total of 113 days in the president’s company. At a certain point, Churchill began using White House stationery, adding the word “at” to the top of the letterhead. He stalked the residence in his patented siren suit—a cross between coveralls and a romper—when not in a bathrobe. He pushed Roosevelt to dinner in his wheelchair, likening the practice to Walter Raleigh laying down a cloak for Queen Elizabeth I, but declined Roosevelt’s “filthy” gin martinis. Churchill’s drink was scotch. And champagne. Also brandy.

    Yet as Robert Schmuhl writes in “Mr. Churchill in the White House,” these visits were not social calls or empty pomp; they had a serious purpose. Churchill was there to coordinate details of wartime strategy and to cultivate Britain’s most important ally. Over the course of the war, he made some 25 journeys outside his country, sometimes to the frustration of his cabinet. “He knew his personality was essential to his power,” Mr. Schmuhl writes, “and he was willing to go where he thought he could have the most impact.” In America, his presence signified a unified front to the enemy and gave Britain a seat at the strategic table.

    Mr. Schmuhl, an emeritus professor of American studies and journalism at the University of Notre Dame, knows that he is covering well-trodden ground. There is no shortage of books about Churchill, including the excellent and comprehensive “Churchill and America” (2005) by Churchill’s official biographer, Martin Gilbert. Yet Mr. Schmuhl has found a fresh angle by focusing on the White House visits themselves, from the intimacies of the close quarters to the tensions hiding behind smiling pictures.

    Churchill brought his routine and retinue with him to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. After trying out various guest rooms, he settled on the Rose Room and then always returned to it. Sleeping late and working from bed, he smoked cigars, dictated to secretaries and requested a breakfast tray that included “something hot, something cold, two kinds of fresh fruit, a tumbler of orange juice and a pot of frightfully weak tea,” plus sherry. His afternoon nap was inviolable and allowed him to work into the evening. When Secretary of State Cordell Hull once suggested adjourning for the day around midnight, Churchill objected, “Why, man, we are at war!” Churchill and Roosevelt worked into the small hours many of the evenings they spent together. It took the president days to recover after Churchill left.

    Mr. Schmuhl describes several elements of the Churchill guest experience that others have underplayed. Eleanor Roosevelt, for one thing, disliked the prime minister—on substantive rather than hostessing grounds. The first lady chafed at Churchill’s hidebound commitment to empire and his notion of a fraternity of “English-speaking peoples” that stretched across the Atlantic. Mr. Schmuhl also explores the way the senior staffs of the two nations clashed even as their leaders laughed and swapped stories. Unwilling to accept well-worn tales, Mr. Schmuhl pokes at the apocryphal nature of some familiar episodes, such as the president walking in on the prime minister naked and unruffled after his bath.

    Roosevelt was not the only American president whom Churchill courted. During his second term as prime minister, from 1951 to 1955, he overlapped mainly with Dwight Eisenhower. (The book frustratingly skims past Churchill’s cagey relationship with Harry Truman.) Yet in describing this partnership, Mr. Schmuhl missteps, asserting that Churchill’s visits with Eisenhower “reflected a human bond stronger than the one between Churchill and Roosevelt.” This revisionist claim is contrary to the weight of prevailing thought, and ultimately is unpersuasive.

    Churchill rooted for Adlai Stevenson to beat Eisenhower in 1952, describing the general as “a nice man, but a fool.” Mr. Schmuhl contends that Churchill’s opinion of Eisenhower softened with time and makes much of two or three public remarks in which the two men praised each other in the gauzy terms that politicians use in front of microphones. Yet as Andrew Roberts points out in “Churchill: Walking with Destiny” (2018), as late as 1956 “Churchill’s private feelings towards Eisenhower were as negative as ever.” By contrast, Churchill once turned to Roosevelt’s daughter and said, as the president struggled to rise from his chair, “I love that man.” On another occasion leading up to the 1944 election, he told FDR, “I simply can’t go on without you.”

    “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” Churchill’s quote underlines the precarious importance of the American special relationship during and after the war. “Mr. Churchill in the White House” showcases an essential point about the great Englishman’s visits to the United States. Common history and shared interests will move nations in the same direction. Yet sometimes it takes the force of personality to bind them together.

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