The next President of the United States might issue a curious order to his White House staff: Bring me the head of Sir Winston Churchill!

While visiting the United Kingdom last week, American President Barrack Obama fielded a question regarding a 1946 bust of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill which has become the centre of a minor controversy in Anglo-American relations.

Obama removed the statue from the Oval Office shortly after becoming President. The bust which had been placed in the White House’s Oval Office shortly after September 11, 2001 by President George W. Bush and remained there until the end of his term in office.

“I thought it was appropriate and I suspect most people here in the UK might agree, that as the first African American president it might be appropriate to have a bust of Martin Luther King in my office to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who had somehow allowed me to have the privilege of holding this office.” Obama said in explaining the move. Prior to Obama’s statement the White House had stated the bust’s location in the Oval Office had always been planned as temporary. The bust is currently located at the British ambassador’s residence in Washington D.C..

For President George W. Bush the bust was an important symbol of Anglo-American relationship. In doing so, Bush cast himself as a modern Churchill and as a stoic war time leader. In retirement, Bush took up water-color painting, a hobby of Churchill’s as well.

The bust by American artist Sir Jacob Epstein was officially on loan from Great Britain during this period and Obama’s actions were criticized by Rodger Cohen in The New York Times and by conservative thinker Charles Krauthammer in the United States. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz has used the issue on the campaign trail as well.

Obama’s trip to the United Kingdom caused Tory leader Boris Johnson to write an op-ed last week noting the fate of Churchill’s statue was just one example of Obama’s lack of regard for the Anglo-American alliance.  Johnson used the image to make a larger point about the American reaction to the proposed exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

Both Obama and his predecessor Bush are distant relatives of Winston Churchill. Some speculated that Obama may have made the move over displeasure with Churchill’s heavy-handed approach to the Mau-Mau in Kenya (where Obama’s father is from) in 1952.

The White House has in the past pointed out that a second bust of Churchill from 1960s remains on display near the Oval Office. “I love Winston Churchill, love the guy” Obama clarified during his UK trip. Perhaps Obama’s successor will reverse the policy.

The decoration of the Oval Office issue has been a sensitive issue for Labour politicians as well. In March 2009, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown gifted President Obama a biography of Winston Churchill and a pen holder made from timber of HMS Gannet, the sister ship of the HMS Resolute. A desk made from the timbers of the HMS Resolute in 1879 are now used by President Obama in the Oval Office. The HMS Resolute desk has been used in different capacities by a number of American Presidents beginning with President Rutherford B. Hayes in the 1880s.

Though the British Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downey Street apparently does not contain the bust of any American president, London is home to statues of a number of presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, FDR and George Washington.



Image: Pete Souza – White House