Contrary to WH, Churchill Bust in British Embassy in Fall 2009

The bust of Winston Churchill, once displayed in the Oval Office, has become a political football. Thursday it became part of the campaign when Mitt Romney mentioned it on his tour of Britain, saying he looked forward to returning the bust to the Oval Office. 

The White House then began a major pushback on the story of where the bust is and why. As you'll see, the White House response has been intentionally misleading. In fact, the bust was returned to the embassy, and there is a photo to prove it.

In July 2001, Britain's ambassador offered to loan the bust to President Bush for display in the White House. At the time he received the bust, Bush expressed his gratitude and explained how the loan had come about: "I casually mentioned to the Ambassador, right after my swearing-in, that I lamented the fact that there was not a proper bust of Winston Churchill for me to put in the Oval Office..."

In early 2009, the Telegraph noted that the bust was being returned by the incoming Obama administration to the British Embassy. The significance of this apparent slight has been remarked upon by a number of conservative writers including Dinesh D'Souza and, as of today, Charles Krauthammer. But in the last 24 hours the White House began a major pushback on this story. 

Yesterday, I noted that in responding to a claim about the US-UK relationship during the daily press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney said of another newspaper article which mentioned the bust, "the only difference in policy proposals that seemed apparent were that we should move a bust from one room to another in the White House." Was Carney claiming the bust never even left the White House? It certainly sounded that way. Friday afternoon, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer addressed the issue head on in a "fact check" published on the White House blog:

Lately, there’s been a rumor swirling around about the current location of the bust of Winston Churchill. Some have claimed that President Obama removed the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office and sent it back to the British Embassy.

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.  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% false. The bust [sic] still in the White House. In the Residence. Outside the Treaty Room.

Again, this can only be read as a claim that the bust never left the White House at all. But that's not true. In fact, it's Pfeiffer's explanation that is 100% false. As you can see below, the bust was returned to the British embassy in 2009, exactly as Krauthammer and others have claimed. Here is a photo of it from the Fall 2009 issue of the Magazine of the National Churchill museum (click for full size):

The caption reads "In his office, Sir Nigel shows Rob Havers and Blaine Luetkemeyer the bust of WSC, recently returned from its stay in the Oval Office."

Apparently, Dan Pfeiffer got a lot of detailed questions about his initial "fact check," because he later added an update which offers this confusing second try at an explanation:

The White House has had a bust of Winston Churchill since the 1960’s. At the start of the Bush administration Prime Minister Blair lent President Bush a bust that matched the one in the White House, which was being worked on at the time and was later returned to the residence.

So there was a bust in the White House--in the Presidential residence, not the Oval Office, according to President Bush at the time. But Pfeiffer introduces the information that it was having work done and "later returned." Okay, when is later, exactly? Was it after the controversy over the bust's return to the embassy began? Pfeiffer continues flailing:

The version lent by Prime Minister Blair was displayed by President Bush until the end of his Presidency.  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.

And this is where Pfeiffer's original bluster falls apart. Romney and Krauthammer were clearly talking about the Churchill bust inside the Oval Office--the one whose removal the media reported in 2009--not the one in the residence. And Pfeiffer used the fact that the residence bust hasn't moved during Obama's presidency to claim the Oval Office bust never moved, never mentioning the existence of two busts until he was called out. He either lied to score political points, to make it seem as though Romney and Krauthammer lied, or doesn't know what he's talking about.

And Pfeiffer's story doesn't match up with Jay Carney, who claimed it merely moved from one room to another. Someone needs to ask Jay Carney or Dan Pfeiffer when the bust now on display returned to the White House. They also need to explain how it can be "100% false" that one bust was returned to the British embassy when, in fact, it was returned to the British embassy.


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