Even before Barack Obama was inaugurated, the question of what to do with the bust of Winston Churchill on display in the Oval Office arose. The valuable bronze by Sir Jacob Epstein had been loaned by the British government to George W. Bush in mid-2001 -- before Sept. 11, contrary to recent reports -- and had gazed with weary wisdom over the Oval Office ever since. Not that Winnie was alone. Busts of Lincoln and Eisenhower rounded out the trio of wartime leaders President Bush had chosen to watch over him at work even when the nation was at peace.
The Lincoln bust remains in the Obama Oval Office. I haven't received definitive word on the fate of the Eisenhower bust, but I strongly suspect it's gone. So, definitely, is the Churchill bust, its unceremonial crating and return to the British Embassy generating a diplomatic flap and many mainly British news stories wondering, whither the "special relationship"?
There is some pathos to this reflexive plaint given that what makes this relationship special of late is the fact that the CIA considers the likeliest source of a terrorist atrocity against the United States to be British citizens traveling on the visa-waiver program -- British citizens of Pakistani descent, that is. Either way, the relationship is necessarily different when some potentially lethal percentage of the British citizenry is no longer what you could call on our side. Or should I say "our" side to denote the postmodern shambles of conceiving of sides, "ours" or "theirs"?
I don't mean to go abstruse on anyone, but there is a muddle here onto which the fate of the Churchill bronze shines a welcome if cauterizing beam. Indeed, packing up and returning Churchill to the British reveals more than the current state of U.S. ties with Britain. When President Obama declined the British offer to extend its loan, when President Obama indicated he wanted the bust out of the Oval Office, indeed, out of the White House, he sent a much more significant message. Namely, he demonstrated how completely our world has turned.
The London Telegraph attempted an explanation: "Churchill has less happy connotations for Mr. Obama than those American politicians who celebrate his wartime leadership. It was during Churchill's second premiership that Britain suppressed Kenya's Mau Mau rebellion. Among Kenyans allegedly tortured by the colonial regime included one Hussein Onyango Obama, the President's grandfather."