Your RDA of Irony

The Prime Minister Primer

December 21, 1804Benjamin Disraeli is born.  Disappointed that that there is no mysterious star or choir of angels, the indignant family subsequently converts to a theology with better pyrotechnics.

My idea of casual conversation would include an allusion to Benjamin Disraeli. My acquaintance’s idea of a response was “Who?”  I hoped that I maintained a stoic mien but my eyebrows might have been doing the semaphores of  “How can you be so stupid?” The acquaintance is Gentile; so she would have been indifferent to the most interesting feature of Disraeli. I just provided her with a brief description of a “British prime minister of the 19th century and a man of extraordinary charm and wit.”

Now, I don’t want to seem like a pedantic bully  (even if I really am) but I think that a middle-aged college graduate should have heard of Benjamin Disraeli. He is not obscure. It is not as if I had belabored the poor woman with such prime ministerial ciphers as Henry Campbell-Bannerman or James Callahan. (And if I had mentioned Andrew Bonar Law, she might have slapped me.)

I realized that Americans’ criterion for historical significance is whether or not it was made into a movie. But Disraeli has been, and he has been portrayed by George Arliss, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Ian McShane. Given Disraeli’s origins, Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller may feel entitled to play him! No, that woman should have heard of Disraeli.

In fact, I think that a number of British prime ministers merit at least a minimum of recognition.

Lord North (1770-1782), the idiot during the American Revolution.

William Pitt the Younger (1783-1801, 1804-1806) if only because Pittsburgh was named for his father.

Earl Grey (1830-1834) because he had such great taste in tea. Yes, really.

Benjamin Disraeli (1868, 1874-1880): He needs no introduction.

William Gladstone (1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, 1892-1894): Disraeli’s rival. If Disraeli was Groucho, Gladstone was Margaret Dumont.

David Lloyd George (1916-1922) in case you were wondering who was standing next to Woodrow Wilson at Versailles.

Neville Chamberlain (1937-1940) who is now remembered as an insult and an accusation.

Winston Churchill (1940-45, 1951-1955), the man George Bush claimed to be–give or take the eloquence.

Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990): Disraeli’s politics with Gladstone’s charm.

Tony Blair (1997-2007) if only to prove that you were not completely oblivious.

David Cameron (2010–?)…oh, maybe not.


  1. Hal Gordon says:

    “Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann.”

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Hello Hal,

      Der alte Jude und der alte Junker actually liked each other. Could you imagine those two rogues at a joint press conference?

  2. TonyHuf says:

    Eugene, you’ve omitted Clement Attlee, the greatest PM of the 20th century. Tony

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Tony,

      You have very kindly forgotten that I am an American; however, I am expected to be oblivious to any history that does not merit a movie or video game. Most Americans have no idea of Clement Atlee, and we would probably resent him for defeating Churchill. Worse for Atlee’s reputation, the Murdoch Empire would denounce him as the perpetrator of Godless socialism and the “welfare state.”

      I personally enjoyed the legacy of Mr. Atlee’s policies. At the subsided price of two Pounds, the young Eugene was able to see the greats of British Theater: Gielgud, Richardson, Guinness, Scofield, Rigg, as well as some young unknowns named McKellen and Dench…

      Alas, my list was intended to be a primer for Americans. We have no idea that Wellington did anything after Waterloo; and for all purposes, he really didn’t.

      Take care,


      • Michael Cavallo says:

        Dear Eugene,

        I, too, was surprised you omitted Attlee, but more because I thought you wouldn’t be able to resist quoting Churchill on him:

        “A sheep in sheep’s clothing.”

        “A modest man with much to be modest about.”

        And best of all, this anecdote, which may even possibly be true:

        One day shortly after the Second World War ended, Winston Churchill and the newly elected Labour Party Prime Minister Clement Attlee encountered one another at the urinals in the House of Common’s men’s washroom. Attlee had arrived first, and was standing at one of the stalls closest to the door.

        Although Attlee was the only other man in the room, Churchill entered and walked to the farthest urinal — ten or twelve stalls away from Attlee. With a smug grin, Attlee said, “Feeling standoffish today, are we, Winston?”

        Churchill replied: “That’s right. Every time you see something this big, you want to nationalize it.”

  3. TonyHuf says:

    Quite understandable – he was almost a parodic example of a self-effacing Englishman of the type that doesn’t play so well overseas – the husband in Brief Encounter.

    I enjoyed your piece, which I should have said. A betting man might wager £5 that next year we will have our second Jewish PM, but he’ll need to improve his speech-giving, young Ed. The tabloids are sharpening their knives, with recent mutterings that his father was “unpatriotic”. I think that’s what they call dog-whistle journalism.

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