N.B. The Epstein story is expanded in The American Spectator, 30 January.
It seems that every four or eight years we must have a Great Media Hoedown over a bust of Winston Churchill by Jacob Epstein arriving at, or departing, the White House. The revolving door bust belongs to the British Embassy. It has twice resided on loan in the Oval Office. Ipso facto, it has twice returned to the Embassy. Perhaps it should hang on a Zip line between the two buildings to convenience the spirit of the moment.
Whenever the Epstein makes a trip back or forth, the media explodes in speculation. Does this signify the end (renewal) of the Anglo-American Special Relationship? Is it a gesture of disdain (admiration) by the new president? Does this mean there won’t (will) be a trade deal between America and the post-Brexit United Kingdom?
There is much ignorance and confusion over this subject. So here is the latest revision of a story that began in 2009, was amended in 2017, and needs amending again.
It is necessary to explain that there is more than one Epstein bust. The renowned sculptor cast eight or ten from his original mold. Naturally, they are highly prized. One is at Windsor Castle. A few are in private hands. I sold one myself to a collector in Connecticut when I was a Churchill bookseller.
(Epstein himself lived opposite the Churchills in Hyde Park Gate, London. Puttering in his garden, he took delight in answering visitors’ questions about his neighbo(u)rs: “People thought I was the gardener.”)
Epstein #1: the bust that never left
Unknown to most, there has been a Jacob Epstein bust of Sir Winston in the Executive Mansion since 1965. “Epstein #1,” distinguished by a brass plaque, is normally displayed outside the Treaty Room near the family quarters. (Photo above.)
In 2017 President Trump asked the Embassy to loan back an identical bust—let’s call it “Epstein #2″—which had adorned the Oval Office during the George W. Bush Administration (2001-09). This one is the property of the British government. Pending its arrival, Trump moved Epstein #1 downstairs from its previous position in the family quarters. When Epstein #2 arrived from the Embassy, Epstein #1 went back upstairs.
President Obama had to pass Epstein #1 every time he entered the Treaty Room on his way to watch a basketball game. So it can hardly be asserted that he was determined to rid the house of Churchill images. Indeed, he made a point of showing it to Prime Minister David Cameron on his visit to the White House. In describing this bust and his daily encounters with it, Obama said of Sir Winston, “I love the guy.”
Epstein #2: the revolving door bust
After 9/11, the British Embassy loaned President Bush Epstein #2 as a gesture of solidarity. It is, of course, identical to the other Epstein busts. The only difference is that the plinth bears a white-on-black plaque, not a brass plaque like Epstein #1.
In 2009 before Mr. Obama arrived, Epstein #2 was returned to the Embassy. It was not returned specifically by Obama, although he received blame for the act. There are stories that he rejected the image or “put it into mothballs” out of hatred toward the former prime minister, British colonialism, or something. This is incorrect. If he felt that way. he would not have kept Epstein #1 on prominent display upstairs.
James Barbour, British Embassy press secretary, explained: Epstein #2 was “lent to the George W. Bush Administration from the UK’s government art collection, for the duration of the presidency.” White House curator William Allman said in 2010 that the decision to return Epstein #2 had been made before Mr. Obama even arrived. “It was already scheduled to go back.”
It is true that the incoming Obama administration was offered Epstein #2 on extended loan out of courtesy, but wanted to make room for a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. They might have acted knowing the White House had another Epstein already. Trump did not remove the King bust when he brought back Epstein #2. “I would never do that,” he said, “because I have great respect for Dr. Martin Luther King.”
I have said a few rude things about Mr. Obama, but not over Epstein #2. I greeted its return (to the British Embassy) with facts, then with reductio ad absurdum. The Obama White House, I wrote, had more Churchilliana than the Bush White House, since Epstein #2 was replaced with Winston S. Churchill, Martin Gilbert’s majestic biography, which weighs almost as much and takes up more space. The journalist Jake Tapper, blasted out the truth back in 2012. Tapper wrote: “How did I figure out what was really going on? I never gave in, never, never, never, never. In nothing great or small, large or petty.” As pettiness goes, this subject has had quite a ration.
Some modest proposals…
Now that Epstein #2 has again left Oval Office and returned to the Embassy, another furore has arisen over predictable lines. On which, a few observations:
1) Together with the Official Biography, presented to President Obama by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the White House today is brimming with Churchilliana. Churchill admirers must regard this as a fine thing.
2) As to its alleged symbolism for the Anglo-American Special Relationship, I recommend a rather broader perspective offered by the American Embassy in London. Click here and scroll to the video.
3) While all Churchillians were glad to see his bust in the Oval Office, every president has the right to the totems of his choice. A correspondent with whom I rarely agree about anything hit the nail on the head when he cited Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson in one of the flag salute cases in 1943:
Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country have been waged by many good as well as by evil men…. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624.)