Caricatures of famous people can be expensive works of art. The character that made them worthy of caricature is a far more valuable thing. The one is a facade that represents some essence of greatness someone felt worthy of commemorating. The other is the actual essence of character that led the artist to commemorate them, or someone to commission the artist to do so. Both can have value and students can learn something from either. We all can be the beneficiaries of both.
The story of the Obama administration’s return of the Oval Office Churchill Bust has been so widely spun by both sides of the political spectrum as to make it extremely difficult to ascertain what really happened. The usual news/internet suspects offer their predictable slant on this, whether it is Huffington, Fox, Briebart, or Media Matters, etc. We must glean as best we can from the tarnished reporting to try to get to the truth.
It seems there were two busts of Churchill in the White House. The controversial one that was returned by the Obama administration was loaned to Bush43 by then British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It was presented to Bush43 by British Ambassador Christopher Meyer on July 16, 2001. It was delivered back to the possession of then British Ambassador David Manning early during the Obama administration amid a redecoration of the Oval Office. The bust is reportedly still in possession of current British Ambassador Peter Westmacott at his USA residence. The original bust, given to President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, is still on display in the White House.
The Oval Office Churchill bust was loaned to Bush43 for the duration of his term. Upon re-election, Bush43 asked to keep it during his second term. This bust was not loaned permanently and was expected to be returned at some point. If there was an error of protocol here, it was that Bush43 failed to return what he had personally been loaned for a specific period, leaving to others what should have been his responsibility. If you had loaned me an expensive piece of artwork to place in my rented office and I moved out, you might be a bit miffed if the new tenant had to return what you had so graciously loaned to me which I so callously left behind.
Unwittingly fanning the flames of controversy during the recent election when the Romney campaign was aiming to secure some political capital from the handling, or mishandling if you will, of Sir Winston’s caricature, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer denied that the bust had been returned, offering as proof a photo of the 1965 Johnson-Churchill bust on display outside the White House Treaty Room (where it still sits). In short – it is true that the Oval Office bust was returned by the Obama administration. It is true that some Brits perceived this as a snub. The whole incident was political fodder for the Right, exacerbated by Pfeiffer’s seemingly disingenuous denial. If Pfeiffer’s denial was not disingenuous, then it might be more correctly labeled as vacuous. Pfeiffer either knew which bust was returned and was the subject of the controversy, or he did not. If the former is true, then we have no choice but to think he was disingenuous. If the latter, then he did not know what he was talking about, thus the label “vacuous.” I will not retreat from this position, though I will grant to Pfeiffer that the two busts, by artist Jacob Epstein, were nearly identical. To paraphrase Churchill in this instance, Pfeiffer became the “slave of the words he let slip out,” apparently in a hasty, heated response to an editorial written by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer.
The truth is out there, but it can be very hard to find. I’m not certain I have it, yet.
Here is a certain truth: The return of the Oval Office Churchill Bust seemed unchivalrous to some, but it is less ignominious than the treatment the post-war Churchill occasionally endured at the hands of his own British Parliament.
Where a bust of Churchill is placed, or who wants it or not, changes nothing about Churchill or his place in history. The world will still vividly remember Churchill long after Presidents Bush and Obama have most likely been consigned to history’s footnotes. Please remember that the events that brought Churchill to greatness were so monumental that no one would like to see them repeated. I’m content if none of our presidents ever rise to such heights, preferring them to become mere footnotes to a gentle, uneventful passing of history. Our wish should be that our presidents all become Millard Fillmore’s of American History, though I daresay that during Fillmore’s administration there was no more or no less acrimony in politics than there seems to be now. Political acrimony is one thing. Epic, monumental events that form, shape, and give birth to greatness in men are altogether another. It was the Civil War that revealed a Lincoln. It was World War II that revealed a Churchill. Pardon me, but I can do without the revelation of any more great men.
I’d like to think that while considering this, Churchill would merely light a cigar, take a sip (or several) of a fine single-malt, well-peated scotch, laughing out loud as he recalls having stared, unblinking and unbending, in the face of things of a far greater urgency. It is Churchill’s character I celebrate here, not his caricature.