The mystery of not one, but two Churchill busts in the White House
By Amy Davidson
THE NEW YORKER, 1 August 2012—On Tuesday, Dan Pfeiffer, a White House spokesman, had to apologize to Charles Krauthammer, the columnist, for what was either a point of interior decorating or international diplomacy or outright perfidy on the part of the Obama Administration. It started last Friday, when Krauthammer wrote, in a column for the Washington Post on Mitt Romney’s foreign trip, that
Obama started his presidency by returning to the British Embassy the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office.
Fighting words. Pfeiffer, on the White House Web site, called this a “ridiculous claim” and “patently false”: “This is 100% false. The bust still in the White House. In the Residence. Outside the Treaty Room.” He included, as evidence, a photograph of President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron—or at least their backs—leaning over a Churchillian head on a side table. One problem: wrong Churchill bust. As Krauthammer next wrote, that one was given to Lyndon Johnson in the sixties. The other one—they are close copies, both by Sir Jacob Epstein—was loaned to George W. Bush after 9/11. (No house, apparently, is complete without two nearly identical busts of Winston Churchill.) When Obama moved in and redecorated, he didn’t ask for an extension of the loan and, instead, sent it back to the British Embassy, where it now, in the words of an Embassy statement on the matter to Mediaite, “resides.” Krauthammer demanded an apology, saying that the only question was whether Pfeiffer had been engaged in “deliberate deception.”
Clearly, Pfeiffer was both wrong and clumsy. Perhaps he found it confusing to hear, as one regularly does on Fox News and elsewhere, that Obama had scorned Churchill, and, at the same time, to walk by his bust. How could Churchill be both exiled and glowering at everyone? But it was silly of Pfeiffer to assume that the repeated complaints about the missing bust were the result of a misapprehension. He should have paused and figured out which variety of campaign nonsense he was dealing with. As with Churchill busts, there is more than one.
And Pfeiffer should have taken extra care to get this right because, in conservative circles, the missing Churchill bust has become an icon of everything that is wrong with Obama. Republicans talk about the bust endlessly; how could the press office not be on top of that? In one of the primary debates (which I wrote about at the time), Mitt Romney was asked what he’d bring with him to the White House:
You know, one of—one of my heroes was a man who had an extraordinary turn of phrase…. And this man, Winston Churchill, used to have his bust in the Oval Office. And if I’m president of the United States, it’ll be there again.
Romney repeated that promise this week, after deploying some extraordinary turns of phrase about the state of the Olympics, ones that made the British unhappy. (See John Cassidy on “Mitt the Twit.”) It is telling that, having hurt himself, Romney would reach for the Churchill bust as a healing talisman. It is the election cycle’s most improbable rallying cry, the Che Guevara T-shirt of the right. It is worth asking why this is so, and what, if anything, Obama should do about his Churchill problem.
Obama’s critics talk about the Churchill bust as if it were both an object of devotion and a cryptographic key: that is, its removal is treated as a crime in itself—a painful wound inflicted on the tender British psyche—and the moment at which Obama’s mask dropped, and he was exposed. But as what?
That has varied. The immediate problem, as Krauthammer sees it, is that Obama hasn’t been nice enough to any of the three countries on Romney’s itinerary—the other two were Israel and Poland. This is the portrait of Obama as amateur, who stumbled into the White House, saw a bust of a strange man, and tossed it out. More often, though, the removal of the bust is talked about, in a knowing tone, as no accident at all.
Some versions of what Churchill supposedly reveals about Obama are more thoughtful, or ugly, than others. Churchill, for conservatives, has come to represent less a political ideology, or even the sum of his actual wartime decisions, than a stance of strength, a stubborn pose, and a commitment to hawkishness. That last is where the idolatry stops being just about style and starts having political consequences. Removing the bust somehow becomes of a piece with not wanting to bomb Iran, or talk to anybody about anything.
Beyond that, the shadow behind Churchill’s bust is birtherism, or its less conspiracy-minded companion, the conviction that Obama is, by virtue of his heritage, alien and un-American. This notion was most blatantly expressed by Dinesh D’Souza. As D’Souza said in an interview with National Review Online for his book, “The Roots of Obama’s Rage,” “Conventional liberals don’t return the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office…. Obama hates Churchill because Churchill was the prime minister who cracked down on an anti-colonial uprising in Kenya, one in which Obama’s father and grandfather were both arrested.” This is part of a larger story about how Obama is really an anti-colonialist socialist who doesn’t like countries like Britain or America. In this telling, all that Obama keeps hidden about himself is exposed because he just can’t stand to look Churchill in the eye.
One should pause to note the strangeness of this dispute. Since when is fetishizing a Churchill bust a sign of patriotism, or of a sound foreign policy, or of anything? Is there truly an unspoken obligation for an American President to have a shrine to a British Prime Minister in his office? (Again, a second shrine; has no one pointed out that Blair might have avoided all this by being a little more original in his gift-giving?) Perhaps we should be inquiring about a Roosevelt bust at 10 Downing Street—or, more radically, whether the average British person actually cares about the Churchill bust. (The British Embassy, in its statement, said that “the Churchill Bust story is a silly diversion—let’s get on and focus on seeing who wins most medals in the Olympics.”)
This is not to diminish Churchill’s world importance, or the attractions of his face, or his skills an orator or war leader or amateur painter, for that matter. And yet, it’s a bizarre litmus test. Is it also a problem that we don’t have the Queen on our stamps? “Anglophile” is not necessarily high on the list of qualities voters in, say, Ohio are looking for in a President. In a parallel Fox News-outrage dimension, there might be commentators yelling at Obama for having a statue of a foreigner, rather than an American, in his office.
What can Obama do about that? The answer is not, as Krauthammer suggests, to say to the British, “Still have that bust of Churchill?” And it’s not to be evasive either, or act like there’s something to hide here. It is right to push back when the story veers into D’Souza territory. The best approach, though, would be to remind everyone, forthrightly, that sometimes a bust is just a bust, and not the stuff that alliances are made of—and that politicians are just politicians, not ritual objects. In July, 1945, having helped assure victory in the war (which was still going on in the Pacific) and save Britain, Churchill went before his country’s voters as a candidate for peacetime leader. They voted him out. The British, unlike the White House press office, seem to have remembered that there was more than one Churchill.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza. Photograph of Churchill bust by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images.
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