There has been a dust-up over that famous bust of Churchill — the one that President Obama returned to the British at the beginning of his administration. Charles Krauthammer stated the fact of the matter; a White House spokesman said he was lying; then the spokesman was hoist on his own petard. (If that’s the expression — I’ve always been uncertain about it.)
Earlier this year, I looked into the story of the bust, more than most people have any reason to. I was writing an article for the March 19 issue of National Review: “Cousinhood, Lately: Notes on Anglo-American relations in the time of Obama.”
It all started [trouble ’tween the cousins] a few days after Obama was sworn in, when he unceremoniously returned to the British government a bust of Churchill that had been in the Oval Office. Her Majesty’s Government lent it to President George W. Bush after 9/11, in one of its many shows of solidarity. Plus, wasn’t Churchillian determination and clarity called for at this hour?
From the White House, the bust went to the home of the British ambassador in Washington. An experienced Washington hand tells the following story: One night after dinner, the ambassador and an American visitor were looking at the bust. The ambassador remarked to his visitor, “We are keeping it here for the time being, trusting that your next president, whoever he is, will want it back.”
There will be a next president, won’t there? Sooner or later?
The piece continued,
When Obama returned the bust, he stoked a longstanding anxiety in Britain: an anxiety about Americans’ regard for “the special relationship,” as Churchill dubbed the U.S.-U.K. alliance. The way a Telegraph writer put it was, “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.” Britons wanted to know, Who is this new president, and what makes him tick?
A writer in the Independent expressed a view that was found all over the British media: “It’s not surprising that Mr Obama didn’t want Churchill looking over his shoulder as it was Churchill who ordered the crackdown on the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya in 1952, a time when Mr Obama’s grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama was labelled a subversive and thrown into detention.”
Since the appearance of my piece, there has been talk that what Obama wrote about his grandfather — plus a step-grandfather, plus a girlfriend — is balls. (Writing about Britain has made me talk British.) In any event, Bustgate is not the most important thing in the world, and there is no law that says the Oval Office must contain a bust of Churchill. I love him as much as anyone does, but come on. Still, if you’re going to talk about the incident, you might as well know what you’re talking about.
Especially if you work in the frickin’ White House. (I’m unsure whether the British say “frickin’.” Didn’t Mike Myers, the Canadian comedian and actor, bring us that word?)
P.S. For Dr. K.’s magisterial account of his dust-up with the White House, go here. (Once upon a time, “Dr. K” meant Dwight Gooden. Then Charles took over.)