January 24th is the 50th anniversary of the death of British prime minister and statesman Winston Churchill, who had the most ferocious wit of any politician in history.
To wit: Churchill had been drinking heavily at a party when he bumped into a political rival, Bessie Braddock. "Mr. Churchill, you are drink," Braddock said harshly.
Churchill responded, "And Bessie, you are ugly. You are very ugly," and then after a pause, added, "I'll be sober in the morning."
This anecdote provided the inspiration for the book of political comebacks I edited, I'll Be Sober in the Morning: Great Political Putdowns, Comebacks, and Ripostes (Frontline Press).
Here is a sample of Churchill's wit on the anniversary of his death:
Early in his career, Winston Churchill left the Conservative Party to join the Liberals and grew a moustache, hoping to look older and more distinguished. One day, a female constituent ran into Churchill on a London street and disdainfully remarked, "Mr. Churchill, I approve of neither your politics nor your moustache."
"Don't worry, Madam," Churchill replied, "you are unlikely to come in contact with either."
American-born Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman to take a seat in the British House of Commons, was a frequent sparring partner of Churchill's. During an exchange in Parliament, Lady Astor told Churchill, "Winston, if you were my husband, I would put poison in your coffee."
"If you were my wife, Nancy," Churchill replied, "I would drink it."
Playwright George Bernard Shaw invited Churchill to the premiere of a new play, enclosing two tickets: "One for yourself and one for a friend -- if you have one." Churchill wrote back, saying he couldn't make it, but could he have tickets for the second night -- "if there is one."
Churchill was approached by an admirer who said to him, "Doesn't it thrill you, Mr. Churchill, to know that every time you make a speech the hall is packed to overflowing?"
"It is quite flattering," Churchill replied. "But whenever I feel this way I remember that if instead of making a political speech, I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big."
When staying at the White House as a guest of President Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill was coming out of his bath when FDR entered Churchill's room. Startled upon seeing the naked Churchill, FDR hurriedly reversed his wheelchair, but he was stopped by Churchill: "The Prime Minister has nothing to hide from the President of the United States."
At a White House luncheon in 1943, Churchill was angrily confronted by Helen Reid, wife of the anti-British owner of the Chicago Tribune. Mrs. Reid assailed Churchill for the British treatment of Indians during the colonialization of India.
Churchill coolly responded: "Before we proceed further, let us get one thing clear. Are we talking about the brown Indians of India, who have multiplied under benevolent English rule? Or are we speaking of the red Indians in America who, I understand, are almost extinct."
When Churchill delivered his famous Iron Curtain Address at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. in 1946, a ceremony was held to dedicate a bust of the wartime prime minister. After the ceremonies were over, a buxomly woman approached Churchill and gushed, "Mr. Churchill, I traveled over a hundred miles this morning for the unveiling of your bust."
Churchill replied, "Madam, I assure you that I would gladly return the favor."
Queen Salote Tupou of Tonga was present during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The ceremonies dragged on and on. When the rotund Queen Tupou passed by where Churchill was sitting, she was followed by a small boy.
Churchill was nudged by a companion who pointed to the small boy and asked, "Who's that?"
"Her lunch," Churchill grumbled.
A speaker was well along in his boring speech on the floor of the House of Commons when he observed Churchill napping.
"Must you fall asleep while I'm speaking?" the speaker demanded.
"No," said Churchill, eyes remaining shut, "It's purely voluntary."
The conservative Churchill was often at odds with Clement Attlee, leader of the Labor Party, which advocated a greater role for the government in economic policy. Churchill once entered a men's room to find Attlee standing at the urinal. Churchill took a position at the other end of the trough.
"Feeling standoffish today, are we, Winston?" Atlee asked.
"That's right," Churchill responded. "Every time you see something big, you want to nationalize it."
When someone said to Churchill that Clement Attlee was a modest man, Churchill agreed, adding, "But then he does have a lot to be modest about."