Churchill & the power of words

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the Unite...
Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945 and from 1951 to 1955. Deutsch: Winston Churchill, 1940 bis 1945 sowie 1951 bis 1955 Premier des Vereinigten Königreichs und Literaturnobelpreisträger des Jahres 1953. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

President Obama reportedly has 15 million+ Twitter followers. Romney folks got a bunch of their own with the fake Bill Clinton tweets caper. But anything tweets and sound bites can do, oratory could do better. Oh, for a Winston Churchill today.

Winston Churchill would absolutely never have tweeted.

What he did do with the English language is illuminated in a fascinating exhibition that opened on my birthday – thanks, Churchill Centre – at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan. Get there if you can.

Churchill: The Power of Words, includes some sixty-five documents, artifacts, and recordings, ranging from edited typescripts of his speeches to his Nobel Medal and Citation to endearingly personal notes exchanged with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Among the most moving features of the exhibition is a small room where broadcasts that   Churchill made between 1938 and 1941 are heard while a screen shows video clips and his own annotated notes.

It’s hard to pick a favorite from among the treasure trove of documents, but the collection detailing his unhappy days at St. George School, to which he was sent off when not quite 8 years old, is a start. Notes the hated headmaster: “Winston is troublesome, his conduct exceedingly bad; he cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere.” But he got good grades in history.

The Roosevelt/Churchill friendship shines through in exchanged notes, such as when FDR delightedly heard Churchill had visited the U.S. as a baby. Churchill wrote back that no, he’d been here first when he was 28, “too big for my baby carriage.” To which FDR cabled back, “Some baby.”

Also included in the exhibition is the doctor’s prescription for “medicinal alcohol” when Churchill was hospitalized after being struck by a car in New York during Prohibition; FDR’s telegram to Churchill on D-Day; and the handwritten note from King George VI about FDR’s death: “My dear Winston; I cannot tell you how sad I am…”

In addition to the oratory that shaped history, the words in The Power of Words are mischievous, poignant, revealing and heart-wrenching.

They just wouldn’t be the same in a tweet.