President George W Bush receives a bust of Churchill from British Ambassador Christopher Meyer in the Oval Office (Photo: TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage became the first UK politician to get an audience with President Elect Donald Trump this week, where they chatted about “victory, global politics and the status of Brexit.” Also on the agenda was a bust of Winston Churchill.
Nigel Farage said he was “especially pleased by the very positive reaction to idea that Sir Winston Churchill’s bust should be put back in Oval Office”.
There’s been an ongoing row over this since at least 2009.
It threatens not to be resolved despite repeated fact checks (and indeed this article) because the truth is complicated.
Additionally because it is convenient for some to claim, as Boris Johnson implied in a column for The Sun in March, that President Obama chose to move the bust from the Oval Office – the official office of the President – as a “snub” to the British.
The Foreign Secretary wrote in March: “Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire.”
This bust of Winston Churchill has developed into something more than a piece of sculpted bronze – it has become a bit of a political hot potato.
The confusion comes because there are two busts of Winston Churchill – both by Jacob Epstein, according to the New Yorker.
They reside in two different places – one, which was only ever loaned to the White House by the British, was returned to the British ambassador’s residence.
The other sits in the White House’s family quarters, outside the President’s private study.
The loaned bust was moved from the Oval Office to make way for a bust of Martin Luther King when Barack Obama became President.
President Obama explained: “As the first African American president [I thought] it might be appropriate to have a bust of Martin Luther King in my office to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who had somehow allowed me to have the privilege of holding this office.”
Just to complicate matters further, there’s actually a third bust of Winston Churchill too, which was unveiled inside Congress’s statuary hall in 2013 by Nicholas Soames MP, Winston Churchill’s grandson.
One imagines it’s hard to move around the Capitol for busts of Winston Churchill.
Confused? Here’s a timeline
According to Dan Pfeiffer, former assistant to the president and senior adviser, there has been a bust of Sir Winston in the presidential residency since the 1960s.
It was given to President Lyndon B. Johnson on Oct. 6, 1965,
The bust of Britain’s wartime hero has traditionally been kept in the private part of the White House – until 2001.
16 July 2001
This isn’t actually true though – the picture of George Bush receiving the bust on the White House website is dated July 16 2001 – months before the terror attacks.
A video recording of the event, as dated to July 16, also makes no reference to the tragedy.
This new Churchill bust was also by Jacob Epstein. It’s not clear why the other bust couldn’t just be moved from the private residence to the Oval Office, though President Bush mentioned he “lamented” not having a proper Churchill bust to put in the office. Perhaps it was being renovated.
“He was a man of great courage,” President Bush said at the time. “He knew what he believed. And it really went after it in a way that seemed like a Texan to me.”
In any case, the new president liked the new bust so much, he decided to place it in the Oval Office.
2 November 2004
The Republican politician is re-elected for another four years in charge, so the British Embassy offer to extend the loan.
President Bush takes up the offer.
Meanwhile, the original 1960s bust continues to sit quietly out of the spotlight in the private residence (possibly? It’s all very complicated, but this is what the White House say later).
4 November 2008
Out with the old and in with the new – Barack Obama is elected as the 44th President of the United States.
As is customary when a new leader takes office, they are given the chance to redecorate. The furniture is moved around and artwork on loan is returned.
President Obama decides to opt for busts of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King in the Oval Office instead and the returned bust is put on display at the British Ambassador’s Residence.
But the original bust, (now out of renovation?), sits pretty outside the Treaty Room in the family quarters.
14 February 2009
Everybody kicks off about the bust again, after it’s formally handed back.
An article in the Telegraph describes Obama as saying “thanks but no thanks” to keeping the bust on show.
This is where the rather odd British Embassy statement about it being lent “in the wake of 9/11 as a signal of the strong transatlantic relationship” comes in.
They do, however, confirm the bust was only ever on loan from the Government’s Art Collection.
17 July 2012
Mitt Romney enters the fray, with the bust of Winston Churchill back as a political potato. This time, however, Romney may also have been using the bronze not only to berate Obama, but to mollify some hurt British egos.
Speaking to a group of supporters in London, a day after he suggested that Britain wasn’t ready for the Olympics, he said: “You know, one of—one of my heroes was a man who had an extraordinary turn of phrase…. And this man, Winston Churchill, used to have his bust in the Oval Office. And if I’m president of the United States, it’ll be there again.”
24 January 2015
More fisti-busts, this time from Republican senator Ted Cruz.
“One of the very first acts President Obama did upon being elected was sending Churchill’s bust back to the UK, and I think that foreshadowed everything that was to come the next six years,” he claims at Iowa Freedom Summit.
After another miniature row over minutiae, Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier told The Washington Post: “the point is that Great Britain offered to extend the loan of the bust at the end of the George W. Bush administration, and the administration rejected the offer and returned the bust.” She also pointed out that the White House did not ask for the loaned bust of Churchill back.
22 April 2016
In an opinion piece for The Sun Boris Johnson reignited longstanding rumours surrounding the loaned bust’s removal eight years earlier.
“Some said it was a snub to Britain,” he wrote. “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.
“Some said that perhaps Churchill was seen as less important than he once was. Perhaps his ideas were old-fashioned and out of date.”
However, speaking a press conference in London President Obama insisted “I love Winston Churchill, I love the guy.”
“My private office is called the Treaty Room. Right outside the door of the Treaty Room so that I see it every day, including on weekends when I’m going into that office to watch a basketball game, the primary image I see is a bust of Winston Churchill.
“It’s there voluntarily ‘cause I can do anything on the second floor.”
Speaking of his predecessor’s Oval Office bust, he said “there are only so many tables you where you can put busts or it starts looking a little cluttered.”
“I thought it was appropriate and I suspect most people here in the UK might agree, that as the first African American president it might be appropriate to have a bust of Martin Luther King in my office to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who had somehow allowed me to have the privilege of holding this office.”
12 November 2016
Nigel Farage becomes the first UK politician to get an audience with President Trump.
Top of the agenda, he inquires whether Mr Trump might like to get the second bust back on show at the Oval Office.
He claims to receive a “very positive reaction”, though it remains to be seen if the British Embassy will to re-offer the loan.