Author restores human side to world leaders

Posted: Friday, June 20, 2008

"Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age" (Bantam Books. 609 pages. $30), by Arthur Herman: Every time the history of the 20th century has been written, the places of Sir Winston Churchill and Mohandas Gandhi are secure.

Each is remembered as a man of great courage, and rightfully so: They were giants who resisted tyranny with defiance, who shaped nations with their indomitable wills.

But prevailing memories of the two tend to be one-dimensional. Churchill was far more than just the brilliant prime minister who inspired Great Britain against the Axis powers in World War II, just as Gandhi was more than a man who used nonviolence and civil disobedience to hasten India's independence.

In "Gandhi & Churchill," historian Arthur Herman restores the human side to both men. He writes a fascinating tale that lays bare each leader's faults and missteps alongside his greatest victories.

What emerges is a pair of striking profiles.

It's easy to think of Gandhi and Churchill as wildly popular leaders who commanded the love and respect of their nations. In truth, each had a stubborn single-mindedness that left many people hateful and alienated. And both endured multiple setbacks, any of which could have derailed their larger ambitions.

Herman begins by explaining how British forces, though woefully outnumbered, still managed to seize control of the vast Indian nation in the 18th century. Then we meet Churchill. His lust for military glory antagonizes first his fellow soldiers and later his fellow politicians. He creates powerful enemies but is such a garrulous blowhard that he can bully opponents by burying them in thundering diatribes.

As a politician, he makes countless blunders. After each embarrassment, his career hangs by a thread, yet his single-minded belief that he is always right allows him to persevere.

Meanwhile Gandhi studies in London and becomes a lawyer in South Africa. There he suffers the racial oppression that launches his lifetime of moral crusades.

He, too, struggles to develop a following. He launches civil disobedience campaigns in the name of equality. But supporters waver as long jail terms cost them wages and keep them from their families.

Eventually the paths of Gandhi and Churchill cross - a single meeting that leads to a lifelong battle of wills over India's independence.

Churchill believes that India is better off under British rule, with its access to British education and protection by the crown's military. He fights tirelessly to convince Parliament that he's right. But Gandhi is convinced that Indians can rule themselves. The Mahatma helps create an Indian National Congress to lead the march toward independence, although the group turns out to be a contentious body of Hindus and Muslims who never learn to work together.

Many readers may already be familiar with the broader history. But Herman's talent lies in presenting the nuanced details that complete the picture.

He gives the reader a full sense of Churchill's frustrations, of Gandhi's anguish. With that understanding comes a much deeper appreciation for what each man was able to accomplish.

However, the book's greatest assets - its lavish detail and rich litany of quotes - are also its biggest drawbacks.

Herman introduces scores of characters and their multiple viewpoints. The technique gives the reader a clearer understanding of who did what and why, but it also makes the book difficult to read quickly as the reader works to keep all the players in mind.

The author also makes liberal use of direct quotes, another pro and con. Virtually every paragraph has at least one partial quote from a politician or government official. Naturally, it's thrilling to "hear" Gandhi's and Churchill's actual voices, but a reader switches back and forth so much between Herman's prose and the quotes that, again, the reading pace slows.

All that means is, "Gandhi & Churchill" isn't a book you will finish quickly. Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Either biography would have been enlightening on its own but in Herman's capable hands, the tales are even more fascinating as one. For more than 40 years Gandhi and Churchill were locked in an unwavering battle of wills. Indeed, theirs was a rivalry that changed the world.

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