President Barack Obama shows Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom a bust of Sir Winston Churchill in the private residence of the White House, July 20, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
There are so many big lies in the world – think Brexit Bus or the current outpourings from the Whitehouse – that there is a danger that the little lies slip through unnoticed. I am not talking about the run of the mill little white lies or the exaggerations and omissions that happen all the time. Instead I want to talk about seemingly minor inaccuracies that become significant further down the line.
The story of Churchill’s bust is one such tale. According to the myth Barack Obama removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the White House and returned it to the British Government when he became President in 2009 because of his alleged antipathy towards the United Kingdom.
That is the version that the Daily Telegraph published at the time and it returned to prominence in 2012 when Charles Krauthammer used it again as evidence of the Obama regime’s antipathy to Britain in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.
There was initial confusion in the Obama team when they issued a denial.
This is 100% false. The bust still in the White House. In the Residence. Outside the Treaty Room.
The denial was wrong. The bust had been returned. But that was because it had only been on loan to president Bush while the original White House bust of Churchill, which has been there since 1965, was either undergoing restoration work or was in its usual home outside the Treaty Room in the private residence on the second floor of the White House. As the same Obama White House Archive post makes clear in an update:
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.
They even provide a picture of President Obama showing the bust to Prime Minister Cameron in the White House residence. But that initial error by President Obama’s staff was seized on as a lie by opponents who ignored subsequent corrections. They used the return of the bust to build a case against President Obama. Never mind that the fact of the return did not support the proposition that President Obama was hostile to the UK. The initial denial of the fact of the return of the bust and the subsequent correction were themselves taken as evidence to support the proposition. The correction was described as a humiliating climb-down and further doubt was cast on President Obama’s motivation. This interview of Krauthammer by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News is especially interesting.
B. O’REILLY: Here’s the back story. Some people believe that President Obama doesn’t like Winston Churchill because of British colonialism in Africa, particularly Kenya. So that he didn’t want old Winnie looking at him because he didn’t like him. That he sent it back because of that. That’s what’s been around.
Now, your point on even bringing it up, the bust deal was, what?
KRAUTHAMMER: My point was I don’t read into people’s minds. If I wanted to, I would have remained in psychiatry. All I know is that the British reaction to the return of the bust was extremely negative, and it felt like it was an insult, that this was a gift after 9/11 to show solidarity. The British had soldiers serving with us at the time in Iraq and Afghanistan, really standing shoulder to shoulder and this was a slight. That’s how they saw it.
Krauthammer is taking his cue from the Telegraph, who in turn were quoting the British Embassy. But the bust was not a gift. It was a loan. And it was not a sign of solidarity after 9/11. It was loaned to President Bush in July, months before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre. So on one hand we have a genuine mistake because President Obama’s staff were confused by the fact that there were two Churchill busts in the White House in 2009, and they quickly issued a correction when their mistake was pointed out. On the other hand we have an attack on President Obama’s motivation and his state of mind that had no basis in fact. President Obama’s critics have yet to issue a correction to their mistaken apprehension of the facts.
The supposed antipathy of President Obama to British colonialism based on his Kenyan roots was to return during the Brexit referendum campaign. President Obama intervened on behalf of his old ally, Prime Minister Cameron to dismiss the idea that a trade deal with the USA would replace our access to the single market. President Obama pointed out that the EU was a major trading partner and Britain outside the EU could expect to find itself at the back of the queue for trade deals. I find it inconceivable that Barack Obama would intervene so flagrantly in the internal affairs of an ally without the express approval of David Cameron. But it proved to be yet another misstep by the Remain Campaign.
Boris Johnson for the Brexit camp responded by reviving the tale of Churchill’s bust and expanding on Bill O’Reilly’s anti-colonial argument by claiming that President Obama disliked Churchill because he had sent British troops into Kenya to quell an uprising. In a Brexit campaign pandering to the fears of immigration by those in Britain’s equivalent of the Rust Belt in the USA such dog whistle racism was condemned by the Remain camp and went unchallenged in the Brexit camp. President Obama answered the claims of anti British and specifically anti Churchill bias at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Cameron but to no avail.
THE STORY SO FAR
The best timeline of events is here. The short version is that the right wing Daily Telegraph put an anti-Obama spin on the original return of the bust in 2009 that erroneously linked the original loan of the bust to 9/11. In 2012 Christopher Krauthammer revived the tale and also played up 9/11, claiming that the return of the bust was an insult to the solidarity shown by Britain to the USA and showed where President Obama’s real sympathies lay. Though he was not so explicit as Dinesh D’Souza who said in his The Roots of Obama’s Rage.
Obama views Muslims who are fighting against America in Iraq and Afghanistan as freedom fighters, somewhat akin to Indians or Kenyans fighting to push out their British colonial occupier.
The myth was revived by anti EU campaigner Boris Johnson to undermine President Obama’s support for Prime Minister Cameron and the Remain campaign. The UK subsequently voted to leave the EU. Then, employing a similar populist strategy with complete disregard for the facts, Donald Trump successfully ran for president on a blatantly racist and sexist ticket.
THE STORY LINGERS ON
And it is not over yet. President Trump’s election has aroused protest on both sides of the Atlantic. 1.8 million people have signed a petition condemning the proposed state visit to the UK by President Trump. On February 6th the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, was adamant that the democratic values of the UK parliament, its anti racism, anti sexism and respect for the rule of law were inimical to an invitation to President Trump to address the UK parliament. In opposition to John Bercow Churchill’s bust was evoked by Republican Congressman, Joe Wilson. He suggested that it was the Republican Party that had restored this bust to its place of honour in Congress. This is yet another bust of Churchill that was not presented to Congress until 2013 and was then placed inside Congress’s statuary hall in the Capitol Building were it remains to this day.
So some misreporting in the Daily Telegraph and a misunderstanding by President Obama’s white House staff about an obscure piece of statuary has morphed into a symbolic battle with anti EU campaigners in the UK and pro Trump supporters in the USA, claiming Winston Churchill as an ally against Barack Obama, the pro Europe camp within the UK and the Democratic opposition in the USA.
The Nazis coined the phrase that, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” But before them Lenin had claimed that, “a lie told often enough becomes the truth.”
And no lie is too small to become truth. We ignore all lies at our peril.