Sorry, but Donald Trump is NOTHING like Winston Churchill. So stop saying it.

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I recently saw Darkest Hour, the excellent biopic of Churchill’s first three weeks as Britain’s Prime Minister in the desperate summer of 1940. Although Hollywood—as is to be expected—took a few liberties with the story, it’s a decently accurate portrayal of Churchill’s impassioned struggle to maintain Britain’s stand against Nazi Germany.

After viewing the movie, I went to the Darkest Hour Facebook page to read the comments of other people who’ve seen it. Almost immediately, the number of individuals favorably comparing Donald Trump to Winston Churchill surprised me. Let’s state an unequivocal fact: Trump isn’t anything like Churchill. Equating the men is to make—in modern-day parlance—a “false equivalence.”

“The truth,” Churchill said in the House of Commons on May 17, 1916, “is incontrovertible. Panic may resent it, ignorance may deride it, malice may distort it, but there it is.” And the truth here is that as a man and politician, Trump doesn’t rank in the same league as Britain’s wartime leader. People who think otherwise are ignorant of history—or, perhaps, simply delusional.

Churchill dedicated his life to public service, was a voracious reader, a lifelong student of history, a veteran and former POW who saw action in five conflicts, master of the written and spoken word, authored more than 40 books and countless pieces of journalism, was an accomplished artist with 16 exhibitions to his name, wrote and delivered some of the most memorable and important speeches of the 20th century, and won the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature. How does Donald Trump—a man who received five draft deferments and, by his own admission, doesn’t like to read—rank in the shadow of such accomplishments?

“A man’s Life,” Churchill wrote in My Early Life, “must be nailed to a cross of either Thought or Action.” Churchill, it can be argued, was a man of both. His dedication to public service spanned five decades as a Member of Parliament, Chancellor of the Exchequer, First Lord of the Admiralty, Secretary of State for the Colonies, Secretary of State for Air, Secretary of State for War, Minister of Munitions, Home Secretary, and two terms as Prime Minister. Until he stumbled into the presidency, Trump dedicated his life solely to enriching himself.

While Churchill volunteered for military service and actively sought out combat zones, Trump avoided it (bone spurs). As a young man, Churchill saw the horrors of war up close. He came under fire for the first time on his 21st birthday as a correspondent covering the 1895 Cuban war for independence against Spain. Two years later, on the North-West Frontier of India, he fought against the ancestors of today’s Taliban and came close to death multiple times. The heroics and glory of war, he wrote after one particularly bloody battle, are nothing more than “the unsubstantiated fabrics of a dream.” In 1898, he fought at the Battle of Omdurman and took part in one of Britain’s last great cavalry charges. Again, the carnage he witnessed drove home the savagery of conflict. War, he wrote, “is a dirty, shoddy business, which only a fool would play at.” One must wonder what Churchill would think of Trump’s recent tweet boasting about the size of his “nuclear button.”

He fought in the Second Boer War in South Africa, where he was taken prisoner by the enemy. He escaped from a POW camp, trekked hundreds of miles across enemy territory, rejoined British forces, and took part in numerous battles—including the British bloodbath at Spion Kop (Jan. 23-24, 1900). “The dead and injured, smashed and broken by shells, littered the summit till it was a bloody, reeking shambles,” he reported. By the age of 25, Churchill knew full well war’s blood-cost. In 1916, when he was 41, he spent six months fighting in the trenches on the Western Front. The theme he assigned to war and life was simple:

In War: Resolution

In Defeat: Defiance

In Victory: Magnanimity

In Peace: Goodwill

When has Trump ever displayed magnanimity and goodwill? His ceaseless Twitter feed is a litany of insults against present and former political rivals, childish name-calling, boasting, and careless threats against other world leaders. “Criticism,” Churchill said on Jan. 22, 1941, “is easy; achievement is more difficult.”

Churchill is remembered for his moral courage and the strength of his convictions. In the 1930s, he spoke out against appeasement and the dangers of Nazism when it was not a popular thing to do. He did not believe those who marched beneath the Swastika were “very fine people,” as Trump declared the white supremacists in Charlottesville to be. Trump’s bellicosity and “little rocket-man” Tweets against Kim Jong-un is not equal to the solitary and near decade-long campaign Churchill waged against the rising threat of Hitler.

Churchill was extraordinarily articulate—a master writer and orator. His love and passion for history informed his words. “Study history, study history,” he said in a speech at Westminster Hall on May 27, 1953. “In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” Trump, ignorant of history, mistakes bluster and insults for meaningful communication. His lies are flagrant, and he seeks—daily—to undermine the institutions that uphold our way of life and civil liberties. He mercilessly criticizes all who oppose him and goes out of his way to tout his own greatness, insisting his way is the only way. Perhaps he would be wise to keep in mind Churchill’s words on national unity: “What does national unity mean? It surely means that reasonable sacrifices of party opinions, personal opinion, and Party interest should be made by all in order to contribute to the national security.”

As Britain’s wartime leader, Churchill used his words to bring people and nations together. Trump uses words to divide and sew distrust (at the moment of this writing, he’s unleashing a Tweet storm about “Fake News CNN”). Churchill, as a professional author and journalist, understood the purpose and importance of the media. “We sneer at the Press,” Churchill said in 1939, “but they give an extremely true picture of a great deal that is going on, a very much fuller and detailed picture than we are able to receive from Ministers of the Crown.”

This is not to say Churchill was perfect—far from it. He was on the wrong side of the debate regarding India’s independence; his thoughts on Empire are today anachronistic, as is his belief in the superiority of the English-speaking peoples. But even if you judge him by his faults alone, he still ranks supreme to Trump in every conceivable way. Trump is a shallow vessel—one who feels the need to let the public know he’s a “stable genius.” Churchill stood on a foundation of firm beliefs. Trump—by most accounts—believes whatever it is the last person he spoke to says.

Churchill’s public service spanned five decades and two world wars. Trump, at the time of this writing, has been in office less than a year. It’s idiotic to equate the two men. History will continue to remember Churchill as one of our most iconic leaders. It’s safe to say it will not pass the same judgment on Donald Trump.

 

 

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Don’t call him ‘Pappy’

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I love reading the personal letters of my favorite authors. Here’s one penned by F. Scott Fitzgerald to his 11-year-old daughter, Scottie, while she was away at summer camp. Among the many things evident is his absolute hatred for being called “Pappy”:

La Paix, Rodgers’ Forge
Towson, Maryland

August 8, 1933

Dear Pie:

I feel very strongly about you doing duty. Would you give me a little more documentation about your reading in French? I am glad you are happy — but I never believe much in happiness. I never believe in misery either. Those are things you see on the stage or the screen or the printed pages, they never really happen to you in life.

All I believe in in life is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly. If there is such a volume in the camp library, will you ask Mrs. Tyson to let you look up a sonnet of Shakespeare’s in which the line occurs “Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

Have had no thoughts today, life seems composed of getting up a Saturday Evening Post story. I think of you, and always pleasantly; but if you call me “Pappy” again I am going to take the White Cat out and beat his bottom hard, six times for every time you are impertinent. Do you react to that?

I will arrange the camp bill.

Halfwit, I will conclude.

Things to worry about:

Worry about courage
Worry about Cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship
Worry about. . .

Things not to worry about:

Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions

Things to think about:

What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:

(a) Scholarship
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?

With dearest love,

Daddy

P.S. My come-back to your calling me Pappy is christening you by the word Egg, which implies that you belong to a very rudimentary state of life and that I could break you up and crack you open at my will and I think it would be a word that would hang on if I ever told it to your contemporaries. “Egg Fitzgerald.” How would you like that to go through life with — “Eggie Fitzgerald” or “Bad Egg Fitzgerald” or any form that might occur to fertile minds? Try it once more and I swear to God I will hang it on you and it will be up to you to shake it off. Why borrow trouble?

Love anyhow.

This letter appears in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters and Letters of Note.

Writers and their cocktails

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Photo: Esquire.com

As suggested by my last couple of posts, I’ve been reading a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald. This, naturally, got me thinking about authors and alcohol. While Googling the subject, I came across a great post on a website called The Kitchn. It lists the the favorite cocktails of famous authors. This should be required reading for anyone who enjoys a good book and a strong libation (preferably at the same time). Here’s the list as it appears on The Kitchn (click here for the full article)—complete with nice literary quotes. Indeed, drinking should be educational.

Ernest Hemingway: The Mojito – Hemingway is associated with a number of cocktails (he was, after all, a heavy drinker), but none more so than the Mojito. According to Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide, the mojito was invented at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba, where Hemingway drank them.

 “My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita.” – Ernest Hemingway, a signed quote hung on the wall of La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba

William Faulkner: The Mint Julep – Faulkner’s Mint Julep recipe, as seen in Rowan Oak, the estate where William Faulkner lived from 1930 until his death in 1962, consisted of whiskey, 1 tsp sugar, ice, and a sprig or two of crushed mint, served in a metal cup.

 “Isn’t anythin’ Ah got whiskey won’t cure.” – William Faulkner

Scott Fitzgerald: The Gin Rickey– It’s rumored that Fitzgerald’s passion for gin stemmed from his belief that you could not detect it on his breath. Traditionally a rickey is made with gin, but it can also be made with scotch or rum.

 “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Raymond Chandler: The Gimlet – The gimlet didn’t catch on in America until Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe introduced it in The Long Goodbye.

 “A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose’s lime juice and nothing else.” – Terry Lennox in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye

Ian Fleming: The Vesper Martini – In Fleming’s Bond series, the Vesper Martini is the first drink Bond ever orders – and the only time he orders it. The Vesper differs from Bond’s standard cocktail of choice, the martini, in that it uses both gin and vodka. Bond would later be known for ordering vodka martinis. (Interesting side note: in total, Bond orders 19 vodka martinis and 16 gin martinis throughout Fleming’s novels and short stories.)

 “A dry martini… One. In a deep Champagne goblet…Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?” – James Bond

Truman Capote: The Screwdriver – Capote is said to have called the Screwdriver—made with vodka, orange juice, and orange slices—”my orange drink.”

“In this profession it’s a long walk between drinks.” – Truman Capote

Edna St. Vincent Millay: The “Between the Sheets” – The story goes that Edna St. Vincent Millay, while writing and drinking late one night with Edmund Wilson and the poet John Peale Bishop, asked the men to hold her in their arms, one holding her lower half, the other her upper. Thus, the seductive “Between the Sheets” cocktail, which is basically a Sidecar with rum.

“Ah, drink again
This river that is the taker-away of pain,
And the giver-back of beauty!” – Edna St. Vincent Millay

John Steinbeck: The Jack Rose – Also known as “Jersey Lightning,” the Jack Rose is for “the brandy drinker who also happen[s] to be a champion of the working class,” according to Hemingway & Bailey’s Bartending Guide. It was Steinbeck’s favorite drink.

 “I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.” – John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley

Jack Kerouac: The Margarita – Kerouac is said to have developed a taste for margaritas during one of his many trips through Mexico, a country and culture he loved.

 “Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” – Jack Kerouac

Tennessee Williams: The Ramos Gin Fizz – Are you from New Orleans? Apparently folks there still drink this famous Southern cocktail in honor of Williams. The drink was featured many times in his writings. The standard recipe contains egg, cream, lemon and lime juice, sugar, gin (of course), and a bit of orange flower soda water.

 

Fitzgerald Fascination

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I have recently—for reasons unknown—become slightly obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald. The fortunate product of this Fitzgerald fascination is it prompted me two weeks ago to read The Great Gatsby. The book was assigned reading in high school many eons ago, but I foolishly cheated myself and opted for the Cliff Notes. Truly reading the book for the first time was a wonderful discovery and education—for while I loved the story, I was completely blown away by the writing.

I can’t recall a book with more beautiful prose. Descriptions of simple things, like fading sunlight on a woman’s face, are stunning:

For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened—then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.

Such writing in high school was wasted on me; I didn’t appreciate, back then, the effort involved.  After reading Gatsby, I read A. Scott Berg’s Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius, a biography of Fitzgerald’s editor–the same guy who discovered Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, among others.

It was interesting to note in Berg’s book that when Fitzgerald sat down to write Gatsby, he did so not with commercial success in mind but rather to see how far he could push his talent.  “This book,” he wrote Perkins in 1924, “will be a consciously artistic achievement.”

The end result obviously speaks for itself.

Next on my reading list: Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.

Film rights optioned!

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Very exciting news this morning: The film/television rights to Winston Churchill Reporting have been optioned by a production company. I can’t go into details just yet, but needless to say I’m riding pretty high at the moment.

This is actually the second book of mine to be optioned this year. The television rights for my first book, On the House, were optioned a few months back with the intent of turning it into a multi-part miniseries.

I’ll post more info on both fronts as things develop . . . and as I’m permitted.

Muses Aren’t Real, and Now is Always the Best Time to Write

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“Writing a book is an adventure,” wrote Winston Churchill in 1949. The man knew a thing or two about writing. He wrote four bestselling works of nonfiction and a novel before he turned 26. Never one to tackle anything in a half-hearted manner, he completed his first book (85,000 words) in roughly two months. There were some nights he wrote so long and hard, his hand cramped to the point where he could no longer hold a pen.

Why mention this? Because Churchill, in my mind, exemplifies the writer’s discipline at its very best. He wanted to write, and so he did. There was no waiting around for inspiration or searching for the muse. There was simply a desire to produce.

Like my favorite historical figure, I don’t believe a muse is necessary when it comes to writing. Actually, I don’t even believe in the muse, nor do I believe in waiting for inspiration to strike. You can wait for that wonderful moment of clarity, when all your thoughts coalesce into a glorious narrative that’s ready to spill forth on the page, but you might end up waiting a long time.

Search the web, and you’ll find plenty of blogs and articles offering tips on how to summon your muse. The time spent reading such advice could be spent tackling a blank page. Writing is all about discipline. If you want to write something, you have to sit down and do it. Such a pragmatic view might be blasphemous to some. “You can’t force or hurry art,” one might argue. Frankly, I don’t approach my writing as high art; I approach it as a job.

This less-than-romantic attitude is, in part, the result of my background. I’m a journalist by trade, having spent more than a decade working on daily newspapers. I took great pleasure crafting well-honed stories under tight deadlines. Also, the fact I don’t write fulltime might have something to do with my attitude. I have a “day job” to pay the bills. My writing-and-research time is limited to several hours on the weekends and a few precious hours each night after my wife and kids have gone to bed. I don’t have time to sit around waiting to feel inspired.

All the inspiration in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t buckle down and force yourself to put words on a page. Waiting for the muse to send a message, is—in my opinion—a delay tactic, an excuse not to do the hard work. Mind you, this is not to say I’m a writer without influences. As a non-fiction author, I’m influenced by Cornelius Ryan, Antony Beevor, Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, William Manchester, and Rick Atkinson—historians who relate history not in dates and facts, but compelling narratives that rival the best novels. In my early years, when I thought I might write fiction, Stephen King’s command of story and pacing had a huge impact.

But the one writer whose influence has remained constant throughout the years is Ian Fleming. This might seem strange for one who writes the sort of books I do, but I’ve always admired Fleming’s straightforward approach. He honed his writing skills as a reporter for the Reuters News Agency, learning to write fast and well. As an author, he tackled his books with a journalist’s discipline—not waiting for inspiration or the whisperings of a muse, but working feverishly to get the words out.

Fleming was a man of habit. Once he established his writing routine, he stuck with it and never deviated, writing for three hours every morning—no excuses. He knew the importance of getting a story out quickly. Here’s what he advised a friend who was contemplating writing a book:

You will be constantly depressed by the progress of the opus and feel it is all nonsense and that nobody will be interested. Those are the moments when you must all the more obstinately stick to your schedule and do your daily stint . . . Never mind about that brilliant phrase or the golden word, once the typescript is there you can fiddle, correct and embellish as much as you please. So don’t be depressed if the first draft seems a bit raw, all first drafts do . . . Don’t let anyone see the manuscript until you are very well on with it and above all don’t allow anything to interfere with your routine. Don’t worry about what you put in, it can always be cut on re-reading.

Nothing about muses or inspiration there. “Stick to your schedule and do your daily stint” is what he says. That, I think, is the best writing advice one can give.

Our time on this planet is a finite thing, so if you want to write—just do it. Time waiting to feel inspired or searching for your muse is time wasted. If inspiration is something you really need to get started, just think how great it will feel to hold that completed manuscript in your hand.