The Magazine

Churchill Returns to the Capitol

Congress’s tribute to the wartime leader.

Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Congress has rebuked President Obama. It may have come in a subtle or backhanded way and thus was ignored by the media. It may not have been intentional. But it was a rebuke nonetheless.

David Malan

David Malan

The issue was a bust of Winston Churchill, the great British prime minister and ally of America. When Obama became president in 2009, a bust of Churchill was removed from the Oval Office and dispatched to the British embassy. This was regarded as a slap at Britain, signaling that Obama doesn’t regard the U.S.-U.K. relationship as special. Or he detests Churchill’s colonialist attitude as a defender of the British Empire.

The rebuke came last week in a  ceremony in the Capitol at which a bronze bust of Churchill—not the one Obama spurned—was dedicated. It now resides in a section of the Capitol known as the Freedom Foyer, near what’s called “the British steps.”

Recalling Churchill’s speech to Congress in 1941 three weeks after Pearl Harbor, House speaker John Boehner said: “With peace, justice, and a touch of majesty, Winston Churchill returns to the United States Capitol. Just as a statue of Lincoln stands outside Parliament, this bust renews the ties between our peoples.”

It was Boehner who arranged to acquire the bust. His resolution “that the Architect of the Capitol place an appropriate statue or bust of Sir Winston Churchill” in the Capitol passed Congress in 2011. The Churchill Center at George Washington University contributed the bust, sculpted by Oscar Nemon, and enlisted Roger Daltrey of the British band the Who to perform at the ceremony. He chose to sing “Stand by Me.”

Boehner aides insist there was no intention to chide Obama, though the fate of the Churchill likeness is still a sensitive issue, especially at the White House itself. Last year, communications director Dan Pfeiffer criticized columnist Charles Krauthammer for claiming the bust had been returned to the embassy. Pfeiffer called the claim “patently false,” but later retreated and apologized to Krauthammer.

According to a congressional aide, Boehner discovered when he became House speaker in 2011 that the Freedom Foyer “had room for at least two more busts.” For months, “we had a running conversation about who we should place there. We kept coming back to Churchill.”

Boehner has been “a big fan his entire life, reading biography after biography,” the aide said. “Late one December evening, during a lull in legislative activity, we started researching a resolution to authorize the placement of the bust in the Capitol, and realized we were on the cusp of the 70th anniversary of Churchill’s address to Congress right after Pearl Harbor. We wrote the resolution and we rushed it to the floor to commemorate the occasion.”

Since Churchill is enormously popular in this country—among other things, his mother was American—the resolution was quickly approved with bipartisan support. Opposing it would have been politically awkward for Democrats, even if Obama might be irked. Churchill was made an honorary American citizen by President Kennedy in 1963 and given the first and only honorary U.S. passport. 

Three Democrats spoke at the dedication in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall last week. They did not distinguish themselves. Secretary of State John Kerry insinuated that Churchill wouldn’t have condoned Republican tactics today. “This bust will remind us .  .  . progress comes only when we pursue it together,” Kerry said.

He told a Churchill story that many regard as apocryphal. “When he was invited to the White House to stay for a week, he stayed for months,” Kerry said. “He felt free to use President Roosevelt’s private bathtub, but no need to wear his bathrobe or any bathrobe when he was done.” The suggestion here is that Churchill exposed himself to FDR. Churchill denied the story.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi talked about themselves. “Before I tell you about this hero, this hero to the world,” Reid said, “I should tell you he’s also one of my personal heroes. I’ve read every word of Churchill’s four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, one of my prized possessions, given to me by one of my dear friends many years ago.”

Not only that, Reid said, “His 125 hours of his speeches and his readings .  .  . I’ve listened to all 125 hours. I’ve read all the volumes of William Manchester’s biography of Churchill, as well as a number of other single-volume histories of the British war hero and political leader. I even had dinner with one of his grandsons in Las Vegas a number of years ago.”

Pelosi said it was “quite emotional” to hear an audio of a portion of Churchill’s December 1941 address that was played at the dedication. “I have a picture in my office I’ve had for 26 years both in my leadership office—wherever that may be—and in my personal office of Sir Winston making that speech. He’s addressing the joint meeting of Congress, and my father is in that picture as a member of Congress at the time.”

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell was more pointed and not at all self-referential. “One of his greatest preoccupations throughout his very long life was .  .  . us,” he said. He quoted Churchill’s words “just before leaving 10 Downing Street for the very last time. .  .  . He turned to various noncabinet officials that he had summoned to see him off and told them simply, ‘Never be separated from the Americans.’ ”

To Churchill scholar Michael Makovsky, the Capitol event “illustrated how we are living in an un-Churchillian age, and how we need a leader to rise above what Churchill called in 1931 a ‘disease of the will’  and advance the interests of national and global security as well as Western ideals. Today that means preventing a nuclear Iran at all costs, the most pressing security threat facing the United States and our allies. Our leaders who participated in the event should imbibe what Churchill stood for.”

Were they to, another rebuke of Obama would surely follow.

Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts