WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, is in Washington, lecturing and writing. Tapped after the death of Churchill's son, Randolph, to write the authorized biography of this colossal figure, Gilbert produced eight volumes (not counting three volumes of documents), and he has written other books on Churchill, Napoleon, the Holocaust and other matters. He is among the most illustrious scholars of the day -- and the British historian, Paul Johnson, calls him the most "industrious" and exact of historians.
A few days back, over dinner, the question came up of Churchill's actual life, as opposed to the legends that people, often revisionist writers, tack onto his life. In the train of a great figure such as Churchill, there will always follow fabulists and ignoramuses creating legends about him, believing absurdities about him, building up a debris of myths around the monument's feet.
Even after Gilbert has devoted decades to chronicling with the utmost precision the life of Churchill, the biographer's work with Churchill is not finished. Over dinner, someone observed that Gilbert will naturally have to continue for the rest of his life to assess the accuracy of new interpretations of Churchill, paying always close attention to the evidence.
Ah yes, the evidence of a historic life or, for that matter, a historic event -- that is to say, the relevant documents, the established facts, interviews, diaries, other historical writing -- these are the materials with which history establishes an accurate image of historic figures large and small.
I thought about "the evidence" this week when I read that CBS is about to broadcast a two-part "miniseries," "The Reagans." It depicts happenings and conversations in Ronald Reagan's life that never took place. The producers of "The Reagans" do not deny that. They present one of the great presidents of the 20th century as a dope and not always a very nice dope.
One of the complaints already raised against "The Reagans" is that it is the creation of liberal Hollywood. Oh, the Hollywood artistes involved in creating this miniseries deny that their politics matter. Whether or not they do, despite historians' rising esteem for the 40th president and despite the evidence that Reagan reversed America's economic decline to trigger its longest period of economic recovery simultaneous with winning the Cold War, Hollywood's recollection of Reagan as a dunce endures. He still awaits his Sir Martin Gilbert.