“One of the very first acts President Obama did upon being elected was sending Churchill’s bust back to the UK, and I think that foreshadowed everything that was to come the next six years.”
–Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), remarks at Iowa Freedom Summit, Jan. 24, 2015
This column has been updated and the Pinocchios removed in light of new information
This story keeps popping up, so let’s try to once and for all explain what happened. It’s a complicated story, involving two busts of Churchill and lots of misreporting, so at this point it’s almost become farce.
Did Obama purposely snub the British by returning a bust of former British prime minister Winston Churchill that had been sitting in the Oval Office?
The Winston Churchill bust in question was originally provided in July 2001 by then Prime Minister Tony Blair as a loan to President George W. Bush. The bust, now almost 70 years old, was made by English sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, and Bush said he would keep it in the Oval Office. Various news reports at the time said the bust will be returned once Bush left office.
The White House residence, meanwhile, has another bust of Churchill, also sculpted by Epstein, which was given to President Lyndon B. Johnson on Oct. 6, 1965, (Here’s Lady Bird Johnson’s diary entry about the gift, which was facilitated by Churchill’s wartime friends, including Averell Harriman.)
In 2012, the Obama White House said the gift in 2001 occurred when the residence bust “was being worked on at the time” but The Fact Checker did not find a reference to that in news reports. Still, at the news conference accepting the gift, Bush told reporters it came about because he lamented to the British ambassador that “that there was not a proper bust of Winston Churchill for me to put in the Oval Office.” So one could wonder why the president would say that when he already had virtually the same bust sitting in the residence.
When Obama took office, the Epstein bust loaned by Blair was returned to the British government, and the U.K. ambassador installed it in his residence. According to a 2010 interview with White House curator William Allman, the decision to return the bust had been made even before Obama arrived, as the loan was only scheduled to last as long as Bush’s presidency.
But the British press, always eager for any sign of rockiness in the U.S.-British relationship, had a field day with the return of the bust. “The rejection of the bust has left some British officials nervously reading the runes to see how much influence the UK can wield with the new regime in Washington,” reported The Telegraph in an article subtitled, “Barack Obama has sent Sir Winston Churchill packing and pulse rates soaring among anxious British diplomats.”
The British media even speculated, without evidence, that Obama returned the bust because he is half-Kenyan and so he might have been upset by Churchill’s decision to send troops to Kenya in 1952 to crush the Mau Mau uprising. (Historian David Anderson later told Salon this was “stir fry crazy” because there was no Mau Mau rebellion where the Obama family lived. “The Obama family come from western Kenya, which is about as different from Nairobi and the Kikuyu area as Utah is from New York City,” he said. “And it’s almost as far away.”)
Oddly, the official statement by the British Embassy spokesman in the article claimed that the bust was given in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, when in fact it had been given several months earlier:
“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 statement continued that “the new President has decided not to continue this loan” but there is no indication that this matter actually came to Obama’s attention.
Compounding the confusion, in 2012 White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer published a so-called “fact check” on the matter when our colleague Charles Krauthammer mentioned the return of the bust in a column. But Pfeiffer confused the two busts, initially claiming that the bust in the residence was the same one that Blair had loaned to Bush. (He even cited two U.S. news reports, in the National Journal and the Associated Press, saying the same thing.)
Oops. When the British government explained that the Blair bust had been returned, Pfeiffer, with egg on his face, issued an apology to Krauthammer. “The bust that was returned as a matter of course with all the other artwork that had been loaned to President Bush for display in his Oval Office and not something that President Obama or his Administration chose to do,” he added.
Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said “the point is that Great Britain offered to extend the loan of the bust at the end of the George W. Bush administration, and the administration rejected the offer and returned the bust.” She added that “we stand by what the senator has said,” and noted that the White House did not ask for it back after the controversy erupted.
Update, April 22, 2016: Questioned about the issue during a visit to London, Obama for the first time admitted that he decided to remove the bust to make room for one of Martin Luther King Jr: “I thought it was appropriate, and I suspect most people here in the United Kingdom might agree, that as the first African American President, it might be appropriate to have a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King in my office to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who would somehow allow me to have the privilege of holding this office.”
Obama insisted he was not snubbing Churchill, noting the other Epstein bust located in the White House residence. “I love Winston Churchill,” he said. “I love the guy.”
We shall note that this is a new White House explanation. Obama apparently forgot the previous cover story that the decision had been made before he arrived on the scene.
The Pinocchio Test
To sum up, the Churchill bust loaned to Bush was returned, but a virtually similar bust by the same artist resides in White House residence.
There is no evidence that Obama personally decided to return the bust; given the economic crisis at the time, one imagines he had bigger issues on his mind. Perhaps someone on his staff should have recognized the symbolic value in retaining the bust, but the odds are the machinery of the transition just moved forward on its own.
We wavered on whether this was Two or Three Pinocchios. Cruz, without evidence, states that this was clearly Obama’s decision—“one of the very first acts”—and then imbues great significance to that fact. But he’s really creating a mountain out of a molehill.
Update: In light of Obama’s confirmation that he made the decision, we are removing the Two Pinocchios for Cruz. Maybe someone in the White House press office deserves some, though.
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