MSNBC's Chris Matthews is featured in a new "Lean Forward" promo spot [embedded below page break; MP3 audio here] quoting his "hero" Winston Churchill as having asked "Then what are we fighting for?" when his finance minister suggested that the government's budget for the arts would have to cut to aid Britain's war effort. Matthews used that story as a warning to conservatives that the nation's dire financial straits are no excuse for cutting federal spending on the arts.
But alas, it seems the story is poppycock, as Churchill historian Richard Langworth noted in a March 2009 blog post.
"Please verify a Churchill story/quotation during his defense of his budget in front of the House of Commons while London was being bombed. A Member questioned Churchill’s increase in the arts budget while Britain was fighting for her life. Churchill’s supposedly responded that he could justify the increase "to remind us what we are fighting for,'" Langworth quoted reader "K.L. from Chicago."
"This alleged quotation was raised a few years ago in the Village Voice and is all over the web, but it is not in any of Churchill’s 15 million speeches, papers, letters, articles or books," [emphasis mine] Langworth noted, adding that "It was regurgitated recently by actor Kevin Spacey to Chris Matthews of MSNBC, though the Youtube post actually corrects the misquote with a textual overlay."
To be fair, Langworth went on to note that "in addressing the Royal Academy on 30 April 1938, Churchill expressed similar views" to that in the apocryphal tale. "Although he was referring to painting and sculpture, it is not hard to believe he would have applied these thoughts to the Arts in general," Langworth added.
That quote is thus:
The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.
So Churchill believed in the cultural significance of the arts and with it some measure of state support for the arts. But that doesn't mean Churchill felt arts funding was sacrosanct, even in a world war where Britain's very survival was on the line.
This isn't the first time Matthews's command of history has proven faulty. The Hardball anchor seems to believe the long-disproved legend that a cow started the Great Chicago Fire. In another famous blunder two years ago, Matthews suggested that it was right-wing dictatorships in Greece that had led to the nation's fiscal woes, when in fact left-wing democratically-elected governments had driven up the debt in the 1990s and 2000s.