It had once been a transatlantic art scandal – or at least various actors of questionable intent would have you believe it was.
Overheated, confusing and laden in the end with blatant racism, the case of the White House bust of Winston Churchill still persists.
President Joe Biden has removed it from the Oval Office after four years standing sentry under his predecessor, who thought he looked something like the wartime prime minister.
An Oval Office redesign brought in new busts instead: Latino civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Some British tabloids deemed it a snub. The US Embassy in London put out a video Friday morning underscoring the special relationship between the US and the UK – emphasizing that it is not about a piece of sculpture.
“We’ve seen some discussion about the Churchill Bust, so we just wanted to remind everyone what the Special Relationship is truly about,” the embassy wrote on Twitter along with the 30-second video, noting other areas such as trade and security.
In another era, the same decision caused outcry. American conservatives and even some British politicians declared it an issue.
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, said it was because President Barack Obama “probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, claimed the decoration decision “foreshadowed everything that was to come the next six years.”
Boris Johnson, who was then mayor of London and is now prime minister, went furthest. He blamed the swap on the “part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire.”
The attacks were blatantly racist and also misleading. Obama officials were infuriated.
There are actually two identical Churchill busts, both by the British modernist sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein. One has been in the White House collection since Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. Another was lent by Prime Minister Tony Blair to the George W. Bush White House when the other one was being restored.
The one from Blair sat on display in the Oval Office until Bush departed. It was returned to the British government.
Under Obama, the White House-owned version was not displayed in the Oval Office; instead, Obama kept it outside the Treaty Room in the Residence, where he walked past it when he wanted to watch basketball on the weekends and evenings. He chose to put it there so he would see it during his personal time. He had a bust of King in the office.
He addressed the situation during his final year in office.
“I love the guy,” he said during a visit to London, adding later: “There are only so many tables where you can put busts. Otherwise, it starts looking a little cluttered.”
When Trump arrived, he returned Churchill to the Oval Office, much to the (proclaimed) pleasure of the Brits. Then-Prime Minister Theresa May, who was Trump’s first foreign visitor to the Oval Office, came armed with the UK version of the bust to present to Trump. Officials said the Trump team had requested it.
“We were very pleased that you accepted it back,” May told him.
Now, the bust is gone again. But Johnson, who is now Prime Minister and is hoping to cement strong ties with the new administration, does not appear to have the same reaction.
“The Oval Office is the President’s private office, and it’s up to the President to decorate it as he wishes,” a Downing Street spokesman said on Thursday. “We’re in no doubt about the importance President Biden places on the UK-US relationship, and the Prime Minister looks forward to having that close relationship with him.”
This story has been updated with additional reporting.