Humor, wit, and exquisite timing were all effective political weapons for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President John F. Kennedy throughout their dazzling twentieth-century careers.
At the 1958 Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, for instance, presidential hopeful JFK deftly used humor to defuse his multimillionaire father’s reputation as the campaign’s hidden hand. “I just received the following wire from my generous daddy – ‘Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary,’” Jack kidded, as the crowd laughed along. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide!”
Without a hint of rancor or rivalry, Jack even teased about his father’s contentious time as U.S. ambassador in Great Britain. “On this matter of experience, I had announced earlier this year that if successful I would not consider campaign contributions as a substitute for experience in appointing Ambassadors,” he said in late 1960. “Ever since I made that comment I have not received a single cent from my Father.”
Like Churchill, Kennedy knew humor could disarm critics as well as bolster his dubious supporters. When Kennedy learned that Martin Luther King Jr.’s father, a Baptist minister, initially opposed him because of his religion, he quipped, “Well, we all have fathers, don’t we?” After former president Harry S.[CE1] Truman reluctantly endorsed Kennedy – “It’s not the pope I’m afraid of, it’s the pop,” explained the plainspoken Missourian – he earned Nixon’s ire for saying Republicans could go to hell. “While I understand and sympathize with your deep motivation,” Jack joked in response to Truman, “I think it is important that our side try to refrain from raising the religious issue.” Though Al Smith became embittered by the bigotry he faced in 1928, Kennedy consistently deflected opposition with his charm steeped in Churchillian humor. Nixon, with his tiresome intensity, could be a convenient foil. “Mr. Nixon, in the last seven days, has called me an economic ignoramus, a Pied Piper, and all the rest,” Kennedy informed a New York crowd just before Election Day. “I just confined myself to calling him a Republican, but he says that is getting low.” Among his staffers, Jack joked when the early poll numbers didn’t look very good, “Do you realize the responsibility I carry? I’m the only person standing between Nixon and the White House.”
In all of England, no one acted kinder toward the Kennedys than Lady Nancy Astor, the same powerful, wealthy woman whom Winston Churchill deplored. The legendary confrontations between Astor and Churchill, both sharp-tongued antagonists in Parliament, could be breathtakingly rude.
“If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” she told Winston on one occasion.
“Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it!” he retorted.
Churchill’s popularity among Americans stayed intact, even though his political career seemed over during his mid-1930s “wilderness years” in England. Some in the press pondered if Winston, born to an American mother, would ever consider running for president. “I have been treated so splendidly in the United States that I should be disposed, if you can amend the Constitution, seriously to consider the matter,” he joked. Perhaps most disheartening, the long ascendant arc of Churchill’s life in the public arena seemed over. He had switched parties repeatedly, from Conservative to Liberal and back again. “Anyone can rat,” he quipped, “but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.”
In the early days of World War II, during the bombing of London by the Nazis, Kennedy’s father, U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, often witnessed Churchill’s grace under pressure as the newly selected prime minister. On the Saturday night in June 1940 when they learned Italy’s Mussolini had joined Hitler in the fight against England, a blow that might have bowed another leader, Churchill managed to share some humor with the American ambassador, inviting him into the Cabinet room.
“Well, you certainly picked a nice time to be Prime Minister,” Kennedy said, in his smart-alecky American way.
Rather than being offended, Winston replied candidly, with his own sense of wit: “They wouldn’t have given me the Prime Ministership if there had been any meat left on the bone,” he conceded.
Inside the Churchill house during World War II, the prime minister’s daughter-in-law Pamela learned about politics from the master. From a short distance, she observed conversations between wartime leaders. She began to understand the personal qualities that made Winston inspiring to his nation. At a family dinner, Churchill talked of a possible invasion by the Nazis and that they might have to kill a German soldier bursting through their door. Pamela, full-bellied in her final month of pregnancy, realized her father-in-law “was in dead earnest and I was terrified.”
“But Papa, what can I do?” she asked anxiously, explaining that she didn’t know how to fire a gun. In a way somehow reassuring, Winston growled humorously, “You can always get a carving knife from the kitchen and take one with you, can’t you?”
Pamela Churchill Harriman later got a lesson in politics from another master. She served as U.S. Ambassador to France for President Bill Clinton.
During a three-week White House stay, right after America’s entry into World War II, Churchill amply displayed his sense of humor. One day, the wheelchair-bound president Franklin D. Roosevelt was abruptly rolled into the prime minister’s room, expecting another meeting. Instead he found Churchill just emerged from his bath, naked as a baby without a towel. As Roosevelt’s chair began to be turned around, Winston made the best of the moment. “Pray enter—the Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to hide from the President of the United States,” he beckoned with amusement.
Joe Kennedy took advantage of his son’s PT-109 crash in the Pacific to burnish his reputation as a war hero, with an eye toward the family’s political future. “Kennedy’s Son Is Hero in Pacific as Destroyer Splits His PT Boat,” declared a front-page story in the New York Times. The Boston Globe called Kennedy’s rescue of his crew “one of the great stories of heroism in this war.” A few months later, writer John Hersey, a friend of Jack’s, turned the PT-109 tragedy into a daring and compelling narrative for The New Yorker. Joe Kennedy arranged for a condensed version to be later reprinted in Reader’s Digest. Soon afterward, Jack received his navy medal, with Admiral William Halsey citing that Kennedy’s “courage, endurance and excellent leadership contributed to the saving of several lives.” Though grateful for the acclaim, Jack wasn’t fooled by the publicity arranged by his father. He knew better, and deeply grieved the loss of the two men on his watch. Years later, when asked how he became a war hero, Jack offered a wry but realistic assessment. “It was involuntary,” he said. “They sank my boat.”
In the late 1940s, the Kennedy experience in Churchill’s England posed the biggest political drawback for Congressional candidate Jack Kennedy among local Hibernians and other Boston Irish Catholic electorate sympathetic to Eamon de Valera’s Ireland. A primary opponent’s camp even claimed that Jack’s sister Kick, the widow of the would-be Duke of Devonshire, had married a descendant of Oliver Cromwell, the scourge of Ireland during its centuries-long oppression by England. Eventually, Jack convinced his opponent to drop the hurtful rumor and back off. But in a humorous note, he asked his family members to be more mindful of their British connections. He pointed to a recent newspaper photo of his mother with Lady Astor, coverage of Kick as “Lady Hartington,” and Father Joe’s public support of a postwar loan to Britain. “Let’s not forget,” Jack urged gently, “that I’m running for Congress not Parliament.”
At the Old Vic Theatre in 1953, moments before his performance in Shakespeare’s Hamlet would begin, actor Richard Burton received unsettling news. Winston Churchill was in the audience.
“Do be good tonight, dear boy,” the theater director admonished, “because the old man is in front.”
Suddenly in terror, the young Welsh actor looked through a spy hole and spotted the prime minister. After six years as the opposition leader in Parliament, Churchill had returned to 10 Downing Street. He’d also just won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his lifetime devotion to memorable writing and rhetoric. For those like Burton, who came of age during the war, Churchill was a paterfamilias, an embodiment of the British Empire.
A bit buzzed from drink, Burton quickly doused his head in cold water, a necessary tonic “to bring myself to my senses.” Every bristle of his hair seemed to stand up on its own until he flattened it with grease. Then he stepped out onto the stage to recite the Bard’s words, keenly aware of his childhood hero in the front row.
As the play progressed, Burton could hear a murmuring in the darkness, a voice from the audience reciting every line of Hamlet just as he was saying it, word for word. “It was Churchill speaking the lines with me,” he recalled, “and I could not shake him off.” Burton sped up, slowed down – to no avail. When he tried cuts in the Bard’s play to get Churchill to stop, he could hear a growl at the diversion. “He knew the play intimately,” recalled Burton, who a decade later would perform Camelot in front of John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline. Eventually Burton learned that Churchill, the writer-statesman, knew several Shakespeare productions by heart.
At intermission, Burton spotted Churchill’s empty seat and thought he’d left for the night. Backstage, however, the prime minister was waiting in his dressing room. The actor hoped Churchill might praise his performance, but instead the latter had been motivated by nature’s demands.
“My Lord Hamlet, may I use your lavatory?” the Nobel winner beseeched. And without any shilly shally, he did.
JFK’s political hero, Churchill, generally avoided talk about the subject of sex, except in jest. To be sure, both Winston’s father and son engaged in licentiousness, and Winston’s lusty mother, Jennie, used sex transactionally in her social climbing, in a lifetime filled with dozens of lovers, reputedly including the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. By contrast, biographers described Winston as “weakly sexed,” more caught up in his work than sexual conquest. Virtually no evidence exists of the British leader’s eye wandering beyond his beloved wife, Clementine. The Churchill marriage seemed molded by the desire not to repeat the sexual explosiveness of their parents’ lives. “It makes no difference,” Churchill once quipped to another Parliament member when informed that his fly was open, “the dead bird doesn’t leave the nest.”
At press conferences, President Kennedy’s witty impromptu answers reminded many of Churchill’s quick repartee in the House and his amusing wordplay amid the most dire circumstances. Even his political opponents were roasted gently. At a July 1963 press conference, a reporter asked his reaction to a recent Republican National Committee resolution “saying you were pretty much a failure—how do you feel about that?” With his disarming smile, Kennedy replied, “I assume it passed unanimously.”
Both Churchill and Kennedy understood that a sense of humor, especially about themselves, could be a real source of political strength and an appealing window into their character and personality. Wit would be one of the most effective weapons in their political arsenal, capable of shielding them from critics and appealing to the hearts of millions of admirers around the world.