What will Obama do with Churchill's bust?

Hussein Onyango Obama, the US president's Kenyan grandfather, endured torture in a British prison

Srdjan Vucetic
20 January 2009

One of the first jobs of an American president is to redecorate the Oval Office. Each new president is expected to update the furniture, replace the carpet, repaint the walls and woodwork as well as add some new paintings. There are also the sculptures, usually three or four. So when he moves in today, President Barack Obama will have to decide what to do with a bronze bust of Winston Churchill.

The bust is on loan from the British government and was installed by his predecessor, President George W Bush in 2001. Bush explains it in an official White House tour video [my transcript]: "my friend the prime minister of Great Britain heard me say that I greatly admired Winston Churchill and so he saw to it that the government loaned me this and I am most honored to have this Jacob Epstein bust of Winston Churchill. I like Churchill because he was a great war leader. He was resolute, he was tough, he knew what he believed, and he had a fabulous sense of humor. And in this job, believe me, you've gotta have a sense of humor. Otherwise it makes for the days awfully long and for the nights awfully short." (Predictably, the video inspired a spoof.)

Officially, Her Majesty's government loaned the bust to Bush for the duration of his term. At the end of this month, the bust can therefore go back to the Government Art Collection on Cockspur Street. But there is little to prevent Obama from retaining the sculpture, just like there was little that prevented him from retaining Bush's Defense Secretary and several other "holdover" officials.

Downing Street, always ready to cultivate Britain's "special relationship" with America, would probably happily extend the loan to another four to eight years. After all, no figure in the world better symbolizes the "special relationship" than Churchill. In his last Lord Mayor's Banquet Speech, Prime Minister Gordon Brown explained it yet again: "Winston Churchill described the joint inheritance of Britain and America as not just a shared history but a shared belief in the great principles of freedom, and the rights of man - of what Barack Obama described in his election night speech as the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope."

Will Obama keep his Churchill? Obama's speech writers would certainly appreciate it. In the United States, the signifier "Churchill" is as positively evaluated as "Obama" in the United Kingdom right now. As Christopher Hitchens observes, in America, Churchill "occupies an unrivaled place in the common stock of reference, ranging from the mock-heroic to the downright kitsch." The man voted the Greatest Briton in a 2002, argues Hitchens, "can be quoted even more safely than Lincoln in that he was never a member of any American faction."

Good politics is not the only reason for Obama to retain the bust. Last year, the New England Historic Genealogical Society discovered that Obama is in fact related to Churchill. (The researchers also found that Obama is a ninth cousin of Brad Pitt and a distant relative to five former U.S. presidents, including George W Bush.) So why not keep a bust of a distant family member which happens to be a great war leader that most Americans love?

As it is often the case, family history cuts both ways. In Kenya, the land of Obama's father, the signifier "Churchill" carries nothing but negative connotations. Several times in his long political career, Churchill was responsible for Britain's empire, which until 1963 included Kenya. It was his government which in 1952 declared the so-called Kenya Emergency - an attempt to quash a rebellion against colonial rule known as Mau Mau. For the next eight years, suspected rebels were routinely detained, tortured, hanged and shot. According to Caroline Elkins, the colonial soldiers killed between fifteen and twenty thousand Kenyans in combat, while up to one hundred thousand perished in the detention camps. One of those who endured torture in a British prison was Hussein Onyango Obama, US president's Kenyan grandfather. Traces of this story can be found in Obama's memoir Dreams from my Father as well as in a few interviews; much more is sure to come. For now, it behooves us to remember it when Obama sends his Churchill packing. The time for the Anglo-American "special relationship" to move beyond Churchill is long overdue.

Srdjan Vucetic is Dillard Fellow in International Studies at Pembroke College, Cambridge

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