“In the meantime, we have a bust of Churchill.”
—President Trump, remarks to the CIA, Jan. 21, 2017
There was a lot of commentary on Friday that President Trump had returned a bust of Sir Winston Churchill to the Oval Office. President Obama had famously removed it. But some news reports have got the issue mixed up.
Few people seem to understand that there are actually two busts, by the same artist. The bust that Obama had returned to the British government is not the same bust that Trump now has in the Oval Office, as Trump hinted at in his remarks to the CIA.
There are two busts of Churchill, virtually identical, which for the sake of simplicity we will call Bust A and Bust B.
Bust A was made by the English sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein. It 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 W. Averell Harriman.) So that bust has been in the White House for more than five decades.
Bust B also was made by Epstein. It was provided in July 2001 by then Prime Minister Tony Blair, via the British ambassador, as a loan to President George W. Bush because Bust A was being repaired. Bush said he would keep it in the Oval Office, and various news reports at the time said the bust would be returned once Bush left office.
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 scheduled to last only as long as Bush’s presidency. That narrative was confirmed by British ambassador Sir Peter Westmacott just before stepped down in 2015: “To be honest, we always expected that to leave the Oval Office just like everything else that a president has tends to be changed,” he told The Guardian newspaper. “Even the carpet is usually changed when the president changes.”
Bust B was shipped back to the library of the British ambassador’s residence.
But in 2016, Obama admitted he had decided to remove the bust of Churchill in the Oval Office to make room for one of Martin Luther King Jr. “There are only so many tables where you can put busts — otherwise it starts looking a little cluttered,” he said.
Besides, he noted, he already had a bust of Churchill just outside his office in the private residence. “I see it every day, including on weekends, when I’m going into that office to watch a basketball game,” he said.
That would be Bust A, which had been repaired and returned to the White House by the time Obama took office.
So Trump appears to have temporarily moved Bust A to the Oval Office. In the meantime, he seems to have found a way to keep the King bust there, as well.
But eventually Bust B will also arrive back at the White House.
“The prime minister has agreed to loan the Churchill bust [Bust B] at the request of the Trump team,” a British Embassy spokesman said. “We are working out the details on the return.” It should not be a long trip: Bust B is still in the ambassador’s residence, which is next to the vice president’s residence on Massachusetts Avenue.
Note: Trump has indicated that the British made the request first. “The prime minister is coming over to our country very shortly, and they wanted to know whether I’d like it back,” he said. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
The Bottom Line
The Churchill bust story has been a constant source of poor reporting. Sometimes it is incorrectly reported that Blair made the loan of Bust B in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when in fact he made it two months earlier. Meanwhile, the Obama White House for years misled reporters about whether the president had a hand in the decision to return the bust. Clearly, Obama misunderstood the symbolism of removing the bust from the Oval Office and was embarrassed to admit it.
In any case, there are actually two busts. Now you know.
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