Pres. Obama recently remarked that politics can sometimes seem small. A prime example of this smallness is the controversy Republicans have been stoking for three-plus years now over the disposition of a bust of Winston Churchill that was loaned to the Bush White House in 2001. The latest stoke came yesterday from the right-wing Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, in an article titled, “Busted: Mr. Pfeiffer and the White House blog“:
Shortly after 9/11, President George W. Bush received from Prime Minister Tony Blair a bust of Winston Churchill as an expression of British-American solidarity. Bush gave it pride of place in the Oval Office.
In my Friday column about Mitt Romney’s trip abroad and U.S. foreign policy ["Why he’s going where he’s going," op-ed], I wrote that Barack Obama “started his Presidency by returning to the British Embassy the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office.”
Within hours, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer had created something of a bonfire. Citing my statement, he posted a furious blog on the White House Web site, saying, “normally, we wouldn’t address a rumor that’s so patently false, but just this morning the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer repeated this ridiculous claim in his column … This is 100 percent false. The bust [is] still in the White House. In the Residence. Outside the Treaty Room.”
Krauthammer is wrong when he says the the bust was provided to the Bush White House by the British embassy after the 9/11 terror attacks — an assertion also made by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post and others.
The Post also incorrectly described the bust as a “gift to the American people from Britain in the wake of 9/11 — meant to recall America’s succor as night was falling across Europe in 1940.” In Republican thinking, the idea that the bust might have been a gift to Bush commemorating British solidarity after the 9/11 attacks would imbue it with added patriotic significance. However, it was not a gift –as Krauthammer points out — it was a loan. (In the original version of this story, we incorrectly ascribed the Post’s assertion that the bust was gift, not a loan, to Krauthammer, who correctly described it as a loan. We apologize for the error.)
Glenn Beck’s website also described the bust as a gift, and Romney, his campaign and a chorus of right-wing bloggers have chastised the president for returning the bust — even though returning things that are borrowed is preferred to not returning them, which is also known as stealing.
Proof that Krauthammer and others are wrong about the timing of the loan comes from an unlikely source: the George W. Bush White House website, which is now “frozen in time.” The photo above shows Bush receiving the bust from the British ambassador in 2001. The caption reads:
President Bush accepts a bust of Sir Winston Churchill from ambassador of England, Sir Christopher Meyer July 16, 2001. “He was a man of great courage. He knew what he believed. And he really kind of went after it in a way that seemed like a Texan to me,” said the President explaining why he would like the likeness of an Englishman placed inside the Oval Offfice. “He charged ahead, and the world is better for it.”
Just to state the obvious, July 16, 2001, was roughly 55 days prior to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The original source of this misinformation appears to be — not Fox News or the other Republican propaganda outlets — but rather a spokesman for the British embassy, who was quoted in a Feb. 14, 2009, article in the British newspaper, the Telegraph:
A British Embassy spokesman said: “The bust of Sir Winston Churchill by Sir Jacob Epstein was uniquely lent to a foreign head of state, President George W Bush, from the Government Art Collection in the wake of 9/11 as a signal of the strong transatlantic relationship.
“It was lent for the first term of office of President Bush. When the President was elected for his second and final term, the loan was extended until January 2009.
“The new President has decided not to continue this loan and the bust has now been returned. It is on display at the Ambassador’s Residence.”
As noted, the hapless Romney campaign has been critical of the president for returning the borrowed bust, including this from the candidate himself during his disastrous visit to London last week:
“You live here, you see the sites day in and day out, but for me as I drive past the sculpture of Winston Churchill and see that great sculpture next to Westminster Abbey and Parliament and with him larger than life, enormous heft of that sculpture suggesting the scale of the the grandeur and the greatness of the man, it tugs at the heart strings to remember the kind of example that was led by Winston Churchill,” Romney told donors gathered at the Mandarin Oriental hotel this evening.
Obama had the bust of Churchill replaced with a bust of Abraham Lincoln as part of the customary redecorating on which a new president usually embarks. At the time, some British news outlets speculated that the switch was an affront to the “special relationship” between the United States and United Kingdom.
(It was actually replaced with a bust of Martin Luther King Jr., not Lincoln.)
So what is really going on here? Jake Tapper at ABC News believes he has solved the mystery:
Like a plot twist in a sitcom, IT TURNS OUT THERE ARE TWO CHURCHILL BUSTS!!!!!
The one in the White House residence was a gift to the White House from the British Embassy during the Johnson administration.
The other one was loaned to President George W. Bush by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Says James Barbour, press secretary and head of communications for the British Embassy, “The bust of Sir Winston Churchill, by Sir Jacob Epstein, was lent to the George W. Bush administration from the U.K.’s government art collection, for the duration of the presidency. When that administration came to an end so did the loan; the bust now resides in the British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington D.C. The White House collection has its own Epstein bust of Churchill, which President Obama showed to Prime Minister Cameron when he visited the White House in March.”
Indeed. CBS News asked White House curator William Allman about the disposition of the bust in January 2010:
Some Britons took offense when Winston Churchill’s bust was replaced with King’s. But the decision to return the Churchill bust to the British – it had been presented by former Prime Minister Tony Blair to Bush on loan – had been made before Obama even arrived.
“It was already scheduled to go back,” Allman said.
There you have it. Mystery solved, controversy resolved, and we can expect apologies and corrections to be forthcoming from Krauthammer, Romney, the Post and others.
Kidding, of course.