On a recent vacation trip to London, I had the pleasure of visiting the Churchill War Rooms, a complex of underground offices in central London that Winston Churchill and his cabinet used during World War II to direct the British war effort.
The War Rooms are extraordinary, one of the best historical sites I have ever visited. In 1945, a week after V-J day, the War Rooms were sealed, hardly disturbed again for 40 years, until Margaret Thatcher authorized their opening to the public. After several years of preparation the War Rooms were opened in the late 1990s, and since then have been one of London's great tourist sights. And they are a treasure: Rarely have I seen such a well-preserved historical site, and one that casts such a clear light on an important moment in world history.
One of the many things I learned about Churchill during my visit to the War Rooms is that, besides being a great political leader, he was a terrible security risk. This surprising discovery changed my perspective on Hillary Clinton's current email scandal. Hear me out.
Sir Winston Churchill was an tenacious and brilliant leader who formed the backbone of British resistance to the Nazis throughout World War II, but especially during the Battle of Britain, the period when Britain stood almost alone against the power of the Axis. For a short time after the fall of France, the Nazis planned to cross the English Channel and invade southern England directly; however, the German Navy was mostly composed of U-boats and was limited in troop carrying capacity. Britain, while reeling from defeats in France, still had more surface ships. The Nazis decided not to risk a Channel crossing, and instead focussed on intensive bombing of London and industrial cities in England such as Coventry and Birmingham.
The British called this time the Blitz, and it was during the Blitz that Churchill and his cabinet were driven underground into the War Rooms.
Churchill was a reluctant resident of the War Rooms. He felt that to hide from the Germans was to admit to a kind of defeat. He was dragged kicking and screaming underground, and his reluctance to stay down there made him a major intelligence risk. One that makes Hillary Clinton's email scandal pale in comparison.
Churchill said that living underground in the War Rooms made him feel "cooped up." He refused to concede anything to Hitler, and therefore, even after war operations were transferred underground, he insisted on continuing to work on occasion at his above ground address at 10 Downing Street.
One evening while he was enjoying his tea and cigar at 10 Downing, the sirens went off, signaling an air raid. Stubbornly, Sir Winston refused to go underground, but he did eventually permit his kitchen staff to evacuate. Not long after the evacuation a bomb landed nearby, destroying the kitchen. Although the blast left the Prime Minister unhurt, it almost certainly would have killed his cooks.
At that point, Churchill conceded that even if he had no concern for his own safety, he ought to spend more time underground for the sake of the people who were working for him.
Even still, after that near-death experience, Churchill continued to risk his life (and thus all of British national security) by sleeping aboveground in a facility known as the 10 Downing Street Annex. Although he had a bed in the bomb shelter, he only slept there three times during the entire war. Sir Winston seems to have preferred running water and fresh air, as well as the defiant boldness of facing direct bombing, to the relative safety of life in hiding in the War Rooms.
Perhaps even worse than the risk he was taking for his own person, Churchill was, by being above ground, allowing himself to be seen. The War Rooms location was classified, and if the Nazis had known where it was, they certainly would have attempted to bomb it. Churchill's regular appearances on the surface in the immediate vicinity of the War Rooms could have tipped anyone off who was paying close enough attention. Luckily, in five years, no one seems to have put two and two together.
It gets worse. Churchill had a notoriously loose tongue, often spilling classified information on his numerous phone calls. Since there was no trans-Atlantic cable available at the time, all of the PM's phone calls to the U.S. were by radio, and vulnerable to interception. Churchill's team pleaded with him to be more careful about what he said on the phone, and finally got him to concede to using the name "Mr. Martin" as some semblance of cover when he made his calls.
Unfortunately, the "Mr. Martin" ruse only lasted two weeks. After that, British Intelligence arrested one of Churchill's personal assistants, a man named Mr. Martin, for revealing classified information on phone calls traced to the War Rooms. Embarrassed, Churchill had to explain to Intelligence that Martin was innocent, and that it was the Prime Minister himself who was making the calls in his friend's name, and breaking classified protocol.
Here is the best story of all. The Prime Minister hated not knowing what was going on during air raids, and often left the War Rooms by himself to inspect the damage from attacks. One day during an air raid, the War Rooms started to fill up with smoke. Fearing the building had been hit, security ordered the facility evacuated. But no one could find Sir Winston. As the smoke built up, someone remembered that the PM had a habit of going up to the roof to watch the bombing, and so an officer was sent up there to check. Churchill was found, as expected, on the roof of the building, during an air raid, cigar in hand. And sitting on one of the chimneys.
As it turned out, there was no fire at all. The smoke in the War Rooms was caused by the Prime Minister's bum, which blocked its escape through the vents.
All of these behaviors represented an uncomfortable disregard for safety and security. In today's America, it would have been grounds for impeachment, to listen to critics of Hillary Clinton. If you think using emails on an unsecured server for State Department business is reckless, imagine the entire classified staff of a war department standing on a London sidewalk because the boss needed a place to sit while he watched a bombing.
If Churchill were alive today, I think he would say this about his recklessness: He was in no way trying to damage the war effort. No one wanted to win the war more than Winston Churchill. But winning the war was such an all-consuming effort that the PM did not have the energy left over to worry about protocol. Sometimes, when you are obsessed with something, you forget about everything else, including your personal safety and the safety of those around you.
Winston Churchill was one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century. No one would argue that Hillary Clinton measures up to the great British Prime Minister. That isn't the point.
The point is that if a man as great as Churchill can make mistakes like this, anyone can. This isn't to forgive what Clinton did, or what Churchill did, but only to point out that even titans make mistakes. In fact, titans tend to make titanic mistakes. Churchill certainly did. If you want to know what a titanic mistake by a titanic leader looks like, Google "Gallipoli," and learn how Churchill was significantly responsible for 140,000 Allied casualties during one of the most disastrous failures in Britain's incredibly long military history.
The point is that people make mistakes. Even big ones. Sometimes very big ones. What counts in a mistake is two things. The ability to learn from error, and the ability to bounce back from it. Churchill had both.
As for Clinton, she has admitted her mistake with the email scandal. While I wish she would be more forthcoming and direct about the error instead of talking out both sides of her mouth, she did nevertheless admit to wrongdoing. While she did make a mistake, her error was almost certainly the same error Churchill committed 60 years earlier. She was so concerned with the complexities of her job that she ignored security protocol.
There is no reason to think that Clinton was intentionally giving anything away to our enemies. That is conspiracy thinking, and conspiracy thinking rarely has any relation to fact. The Secretary was, like Churchill, completely absorbed in the complexities of her job, and wasn't paying attention. Although this is not a good thing, it is also not something that should disqualify her from being president.
Imagine if the leaders of Great Britain had thought Winston Churchill's actions disqualified him from being the Prime Minister of Britain? Where would Britain be today?