Finest Hour 142, Spring 2009
LONDON, JANUARY 23RD- The BBC announced that President Obama has sent George W. Bush’s Jacob Epstein bust of Winston Churchill packing from the Oval Office (while retaining a bust of Abraham Lincoln). This touched off a buzz of media speculation over the implied symbolism of his action.
The bust is one of four or five copies sculpted by Jacob Epstein, and regarded as the most valuable of its kind ever commissioned. This example is from the British government collection at Cockburn Street, London; another is at Windsor and others are in private hands.
In 2001, President Bush explained: “My friend the Prime Minister of Great Britain heard me say that I greatly admired Winston Churchill and so he saw to it that the government loaned me this and I am most honored to have this Jacob Epstein bust of Winston Churchill.” In the years since, some demanded its return, claiming that Bush was undeserving or was using it to proclaim himself another Churchill. In fact, he was simply an admirer of WSC, like most of us.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose….When President Bush had the Churchill bust, zealots would occasionally urge us to demand its return, since in their view Bush was undeserving, or using it to proclaim himself another Churchill. In fact, he was simply an admirer, like most of us. Now that the bust has been returned, we are urged to protest its removal.
The BBC speculated that Obama was “looking forward not backward,” while The Daily Telegraph ventured that Obama’s action might have personal reasons: “It was during Churchill’s second premiership that Britain suppressed Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion. Among Kenyans allegedly tortured by the colonial regime included one Hussein Onyango Obama, the President’s grandfather.”
Diana West exploded that theory on Townhall.com (see by explaining that this allegation stems from Obama’s “Granny Sarah” (who also claims that he was born in Kenya, which would make him ineligible to be President). In Obama’s Dreams of My Father, West explains, the President “describes his grandfather’s detention as lasting ‘over six months’ before he was found innocent (no mention of torture). Whatever the case, Churchill didn’t become prime minister for the second time until the end of 1951. The Mau Mau Rebellion didn’t begin until the end of 1952, one year after Obama’s grandfather’s release.”
In the event, President Obama now has more Churchilliana than President Bush had: in a March visit to Washington, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave him, via Sir Martin Gilbert, “a first edition of Sir Martin Gilbert’s seven-volume biography of Winston Churchill.” (The “seven volumes” was an amusing typo; Sir Martin was short Volume V, but Chartwell Booksellers in New York City helped him out and the full eight volumes were delivered.)
Asked for comment by Newsweek, Finest Hour editor Richard Langworth said he read little into the controversy: “Mr. Obama admires Lincoln, and it seems perfectly reasonable that he should have a the bronze totem of his choice in his office. Since the Epstein bust was a loan to a previous President, it is unremarkable that a new President would wish to return it.”
Langworth continued: “President Obama, an intelligent man, probably appreciates that the Parliamentary forms finally emerging in Kenya stem from the colonial British, as they do in much of the old Empire, notably India and what Churchill called the ‘Great Dominions.’ To paraphrase Mark Steyn (whose bust will never adorn the President’s office either), imagine how Kenya might have developed if it had been colonized by, say, the Germans, Japanese or Russians.”
None of this will prevent the media from using Churchill to promote some political viewpoint, or maybe several. But in the March 2nd issue of Newsweek, editor Jon Meacham (a Churchill Centre trustee) struck what we believe is the right note:
“A long-dead foreign leader, then, has become a kind of partisan figure. This is unfortunate, for Churchill offers one of the great case studies for any leader in how to build and maintain public confidence in the bleakest of hours….It is also worth a moment’s reflection on how Churchill viewed the duty of a leader in a time of crisis, for Obama, perhaps unconsciously, is working within that tradition.”