The election of Mr. Trump promises a surprise around every corner. But I never expected the old Churchill bust business to come flying back on the wings of petty outrage.
Lest this be thought pedantic, let’s start with two modest proposals: 1) For any U.S. president to keep a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office is, for anyone who admires Churchill, a great thing. 2) Every president has the right to the totems of his choice.
There is a lot of ignorance and confusion over exactly what Churchilliana resides in the White House. There are stories that Mr. Obama rejected a Churchill bust or “put it into mothballs” out of hatred toward the British prime minister, British colonialism, and so on. There is no proof of this at all. (Politifact gets the story almost right, but is still confused over which bust is now present in the Oval Office.)
The Bust that Never Left
It is rarely reported that there’s been a Jacob Epstein bust of Sir Winston Churchill in the White House since 1965. This one (which bears a brass plaque) is the one President Trump initially placed in the Oval Office, simply by moving it downstairs from its previous position in the family quarters.
I have said many rude things about Mr. Obama, but not over the second Epstein, loaned to Mr. Bush after 9/11. I greeted its return (to the British Embassy) with facts, then with reductio ad absurdum. I said the Obama White House actually had more Churchilliana than the Bush White House, since Epstein #2 was replaced with Winston S. Churchill, Martin Gilbert’s majestic biography, which weighs as much and takes up more space. I praised journalist Jake Tapper, who deserves at least an OBE for blasting out the truth with a much larger trumpet than I, back in 2012.
In clearing up some misinformation from the White House, Tapper revealed the existence of this first Churchill bust in the building. It has been there since the British government presented it to the White House following Churchill’s death. It too is one of the famous Epsteins. Identical, in fact. (Epstein cast fewer than a dozen. Another is at Windsor. I sold one myself when I was a Churchill bookseller.)
Until President Trump moved it to the Oval Office, Epstein #1 resided outside the Treaty Room in the White House residence. Since President Obama had to pass it every time he entered the Treaty Room on his way to watch a basketball game, it can hardly be asserted that he was determined to rid the house of Churchill images. (In describing this bust and daily encounters with it, Obama declared, “I love the guy.”)
The Bust that Did Leave
The second Epstein, in President George W. Bush’s Oval Office (without a brass plaque) was not returned specifically by Mr. Obama, although he received much blame for that act. James Barbour, British Embassy press secretary, told Tapper it 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 the Churchill bust 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 an extended loan out of courtesy, but wanted to make room for a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. They might well have acted knowing the White House had another one. James Barbour added: “The White House collection has its own Epstein bust of Churchill, which President Obama showed to Prime Minister Cameron when he visited the White House….[Now] let’s get on and focus on seeing who wins most medals in the Olympics.”
Incidentally, contrary to a news report, Mr. Trump did not remove the King bust. “I would never do that,” he said, “because I have great respect for Dr. Martin Luther King.” I haven’t been in the Oval Office recently, so perhaps someone will tell me if the Lincoln bust was moved out to make room for Churchill’s? This does not imply any disrespect, particularly after the moving ceremony Trump held at the Lincoln Memorial. After all, there are only so many side tables.
Tapper Fought on the Beaches
It bears mentioning that the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, which contains a replica of the Oval Office, is missing an Epstein Churchill on the side table. A docent there told me they would love to have one to fill the space. So if any kind donor would like to step up, feel free.
And thanks to Jake Tapper, who wrote in 2012: “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.
Washington, 27 January 2017— Accompanying Prime Minister May on her first visit to President Trump was Epstein Churchill Bust #2 (black plaque on plinth, the one loaned to Bush), which has now returned to pride of place in the Oval Office. Epstein #1 (brass plaque on plinth), which Trump had originally moved to the Oval, is presumably now back upstairs in the family residence.
Together with the Official Biography, presented to President Obama by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the White House now has more Churchilliana than ever; which Churchill admirers must regard as a great thing.