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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

After Dustup Over Churchill Bust, an Apology From the White House


Winston Churchill has been gone for a few decades, but he returned for a small cameo role this week in Washington as the overheated campaign season continues.

The White House was forced to apologize late Tuesday after incorrectly insisting that it still had a Churchill bust on loan from the British government that in fact was sent back during the presidential transition between George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Why does it matter? Because the return of the Churchill bust has become a symbol in the eyes of Mr. Obama's critics that the president does not hold the same values as Britain's iconic wartime prime minister or adequately appreciate the “special relationship” between London and Washington.

The issue was revived last week when Mitt Romney told supporters during a stop in London that “I'm looking forward to the bust of Winston Churchill being in the Oval Office again.” The next day, Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post columnist, mentioned the return of the statue as part of a critical assessment of Mr. Obama's foreign policy.

“Obama started his presidency by returning to the British Embassy the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office,” Mr. Krauthammer wrote.

Within hours, Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, issued a pointed denial to what he called “this ridiculous claim” by Mr. Krauthammer. “This is 100 percent false,” Mr. Pfeiffer wrote on the White House blog. “The bust still in the White House. In the Residence. Outside the Treaty Room.” To prove his point, he attached a photograph showing Mr. Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron admiring a Churchill bust in the White House residence.

The only problem is it was a different bust, one that has been in the residence for decades. The one that had been in the Oval Office had been lent to Mr. Bush by Tony Blair, then t he British prime minister, in July 2001 before a presidential visit to London (not “shortly after 9/11,” as Mr. Krauthammer would later write). That one was in fact returned to the British Embassy after Mr. Bush's departure in January 2009. Mr. Krauthammer followed up with an online item citing an embassy statement and demanding an apology.

Mr. Pfeiffer obliged late Tuesday, saying that he did not realize they were separate busts and never intended to deceive. “I clearly overshot the runway in my post,” he wrote. He added: “A better understanding of the facts on my part and a couple of deep breaths at the outset would have prevented this situation.”

Mr. Pfeiffer is not the only one to make that mistake. Several news organizations have inaccurately reported that the bust in the residence was the same one that Mr. Bush had in the Oval Office.

In any case, Mr. Pfeiffer said that Mr. Obama and his staff had nothing to do with the decision to return the lent bust. The White House curator's office, he said, cleared out all lent artwork from the Oval Office as Mr. Bush took his leave as a matter of course. That was “not something that President Obama or his administration chose to do,” Mr. Pfeiffer wrote.