In an essay for the conservative paper The Sun, Johnson encouraged Obama to help make the two countries "better friends than ever." But he starts it out in a not-terribly friendly way.
Something mysterious happened when Barack Obama entered the Oval Office in 2009.Something vanished from that room, and no one could quite explain why.It was a bust of Winston Churchill – the great British war time leader. It was a fine goggle-eyed object, done by the brilliant sculptor Jacob Epstein, and it had sat there for almost ten years.
But then it was returned to Britain. That's part one of Johnson's eyebrow-raising. He continued:
Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.
Let's set that aside, and instead focus on Johnson's rhetoric. His goal is clear: He wants readers to come into the essay remembering this incident from early in Obama's term so that they are more inclined to dismiss Obama's argument about the Brexit. He liberally employs the old "some people say" technique for distancing himself from the conspiracy theory about Kenya and masks the bust thing in an air of mystery.
There's no mystery to the bust. In January 2015, Post's fact-checker Glenn Kessler explained what happened with the bust. "[N]o one could quite explain why," Johnson writes -- except people that bothered to look.
From Kessler's analysis:
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. ...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.
So ... that's that. Kessler also notes that, at the time, conservative media in the U.K. tried to make the return of the bust into something it wasn't. This Telegraph article from February 2009 plays up the return -- and introduces the Kenyan conspiracy theory.
We looked at that argument separately last year. It has a life of its own among American conservatives, thanks in large part to conservative writer Dinesh D'Souza raising it in a 2010 book (and Newt Gingrich parroting that in the 2012 election).
As we wrote when this reemerged in February 2015:
The argument D'Souza makes to prove his point, by the way, is heavily circumstantial. He runs a thread from Obama's father (with whom, remember, Obama did not grow up) to anticolonial thinkers of the era in which he lived. D'Souza quotes one line from a book written by an academic, noting that this person taught Obama at Columbia. "It may seem incredible to suggest that the anticolonial ideology of Barack Obama Sr. is espoused by his son," D'Souza writes, correctly. But: "That is what I am saying." Obama "adopted his father’s position that capitalism and free markets are code words for economic plunder" -- despite Obama's having essentially no contact with him.
Kessler tackled this, too:
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.”)
So why is Johnson dredging this back up? It's possible that he doesn't know that all of this has been debunked. It's more likely that he raises the questions for the same reason that they arose in the first place and American conservatives like D'Souza and Gingrich raised them since: To cast Obama in a negative light.
A wealthy native New Yorker with crazy hair who disparages Barack Obama. What a world.