White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer attempted to “fact check” a claim by The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer, but he succeeded only in demonstrating the weakness of the genre by whitewashing President Obama’s rejection of the Winston Churchill bust.
The Obama team did remove the bust in question from the White House — and hasn’t brought it back — but you’d never know that from Pfeiffer’s characterization of the issue.
“Now, normally we wouldn’t address a rumor that’s so patently false, but just this morning the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer repeated this ridiculous claim in his column,” Pfeiffer wrote on the White House blog today (without mentioning that Mitt Romney had also raised the issue yesterday in London). “He said President Obama ‘started his Presidency by returning to the British Embassy the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office.’ This is 100 percent false. The bust [is] still in the White House. In the Residence. Outside the Treaty Room.”
Update: Pfeiffer’s blog post, which contains a photo of a Churchill bust now in the White House, is highly misleading. The bust that was loaned to President George W. Bush and removed by Obama has not been returned to the White House.
“The bust of Sir Winston Churchill, by Sir Jacob Epstein, was lent to the George W Bush administration from the UK’s Government Art Collection, for the duration of the Presidency,” James Barbour, Press Secretary and Head of Communications for the British Embassy, told ABC’s Jake Tapper. “When that administration came to an end so did the loan; the bust now resides in the British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington DC.”
The bust wasn’t sent to the Embassy; it was sent to the British ambassador’s house. “Diplomats were at first reluctant to discuss the whereabouts of the Churchill bronze, after its ejection from the seat of American power,” The Telegraph, a British newspaper, reported in 2009. “But the British Embassy in Washington has now confirmed that it sits in the palatial residence of ambassador Sir Nigel Sheinwald, just down the road from Vice President Joe Biden’s official residence.”
The bust that Pfeiffer triumphantly displays in his blog post is actually another Churchill bust that has been in the White House since the Nixon Administration.
Of course, Pfeiffer’s history omits the fact that Obama did, in fact, expel the Churchill bust from the White House. He cites an old National Journal article which says that “the Churchill bust was relocated to a prominent spot in the residence to make room for Abraham Lincoln.” He does not cite yesterday’s National Journal article on the subject.
“The bronze torso of Churchill had been loaned to President George W. Bush following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and although it was due to be returned when Obama took office, British officials offered to extend the loan for another four years,” National Journal explained. “Obama declined, and replaced the Churchill bust with one of President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican president whom Obama admires.” CBS also reported that Obama decided “to return the Churchill bust to the British.”
Update II: Pfeiffer updated his post to acknowledge the other Churchill bust and argue that the removal of the second bust was routine. “On January 20, 2009 — Inauguration Day — all of the art lent specifically for President Bush’s Oval Office was removed by the curator’s office, as is common practice at the end of every presidency. The original Churchill bust remained on display in the residence,” Pfeiffer says. “The idea put forward by Charles Krauthammer and others that President Obama returned the Churchill bust or refused to display the bust because of antipathy towards the British is completely false and an urban legend that continues to circulate to this day.”
The 2009 Telegraph story, on the other hand, said that Obama rejected the offer to extend the loan when he came into office.
Newsweek offered an explanation for the removal in February 2009. “Maybe it’s no surprise that Obama wouldn’t want Churchill watching over his shoulder,” the magazine’s Katie Connolly suggested. “After all, it was Churchill who, in 1952, ordered a crackdown on the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule in Kenya, Obama’s ancestral homeland. Obama’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was labeled a subversive during the uprising and spent months in detention.”
Pfeiffer paints Krauthammer as ridiculous for saying that the bust was sent to the British embassy, but the error is picayune. Maybe Krauthammer’s should update his column to reflect the fact that the bust was sent to the British ambassador’s home. Maybe the Obama administration, having repented of rejecting the Churchill bust, shouldn’t split hairs.