Churchill or Bust?

But what did happen to the bust in the White House—or was it busts? One of the subplots to last year’s often dispiriting presidential election campaign was the fate of a bronze bust of a foreign politician born 138 years ago. As The New York Times reported, “the question of whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will occupy the White House has been overshadowed at times by the question of whether Winston Churchill will do so.” According to some accounts, a bust of Churchill has been at the White House since the 1960s, but Margaret Thatcher says that she subsequently presented President Reagan with another bust, and then Tony Blair presented President Bush the Younger with yet another, which Bush put on prominent display. The plot thickens: Just how many busts were there?

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Fox Photos/Getty Images
Winston Churchill with his daughter Mary on his way to receive the Freedom of the City of London, June 1943

At any rate, when Obama was inaugurated, he removed the bust (or one of them) and replaced it with one of Lincoln. But Romney promised to restore Churchill if he won. This was at the time last summer when one of Romney’s advisers said how much the Republican candidate valued the “special relationship” with Churchill’s country, in which case Romney had an odd way of showing his esteem. He visited London to suggest, most insultingly and, as it turned out, quite wrongly, that the British were incapable of staging a successful Olympic Games. And another of Romney’s team spoke of a shared “Anglo-Saxon heritage” insufficiently “appreciated” by Obama, words so laden with none-too-hidden meaning that even Romney had to repudiate them. Needless to say, Paul Ryan managed to find a way (plausibly or otherwise) of enlisting the same holy name as a fiscal conservative: “follow Churchill’s advice: Prudently restrain government spending, while avoiding the kind of tax hikes that would stifle economic growth.”

Just how and why Churchill became not only the honorary American citizen that Congress made him at President Kennedy’s behest but also a tutelary idol for so many American politicians and polemicists is an interesting question. So is another: why images of Churchill should be so ubiquitous today, and not only in Washington. An entire exhibition, “Churchill: The Power of Words,” at the Morgan Library in New York City this summer was devoted to his visage, his voice, and much else associated with him; its huge popular success seems to have taken the Morgan by surprise. And a new statue of Churchill has just been unveiled in Jerusalem, in the presence of his great-grandson Randolph Churchill, while Benjamin Netanyahu has told an admiring interviewer from the London Daily Telegraph that, although he was “worried” about the British today, he nevertheless “has a portrait of his greatest British hero, Winston Churchill, on his shelves,” and posed beside it for the photographer. Oddest of all was the bizarre Olympics closing ceremony, in which Timothy Spall …

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