Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Romney's Foreign Bust

No, I'm not referring to Mitt's misadventures abroad this week. Those have received substantial (and in some cases, hilarious) attention. I mean the Churchill bust.

While holding a fundraiser in London that reportedly raked in over $2 million for Romney's campaign, Romney said: "I’m looking forward to the bust of Winston Churchill being in the Oval Office again."

In doing so, he revived a silly story that made the rounds early in the Obama presidency. In the years since, it has become common in anti-Obama emails bouncing around the internet. It goes like this: Obama, seething with anger over Britain's colonial rule over Kenya, deliberately insulted Great Britain by evicting a bust of Churchill that had been in the Oval Office ever since 9/11 July 2001.

In reality, the bust was on temporary loan, as the White House has repeatedly pointed out. The British Embassy in Washington issued this statement to clear it up:
The bust of Sir Winston Churchill, by Sir Jacob Epstein, was lent to the George W Bush administration from the UK’s Government Art Collection, for the duration of the Presidency. When that administration came to an end so did the loan; the bust now resides in the British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington DC. The White House collection has its own Epstein bust of Churchill, which President Obama showed to Prime Minister Cameron when he visited the White House in March.
In short, there was no anti-colonial pique on Obama's part. So why all the fuss?

Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama examine the bust that still resides in the White House.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

There are two things at work here. One is the ongoing, pervasive attempt to present President Obama as a foreign "other." Obama's alleged motivation in this fable is his identification with this Kenyan heritage. Though not nearly as stupid as the birther claim that he was born in Kenya, this slightly more respectable version plays footsie with bitherism. Its height was Dinesh D'Souza's article in Forbes (later made more famous by Newt Gingrich) that asserted that the key to understanding Obama was that he inherited an "anti-colonial ideology" from his Kenyan father. Lately, Romney has been flirting with this fringe concept by repeatedly referring to Obama's ideas as "extraordinarily foreign."

The other factor, however, has little to do with Obama. It is the odd love affair today's American conservatives have with Winston Churchill.

I'm not saying there is nothing to admire in Churchill. In 2002, a poll in Britain named him the most admired Briton in history (though in 2008, in another poll, 23% of Britons said he was a myth while 53% said Sherlock Holmes was real). In the 1950s, Americans regularly placed him among the top ten most admired figures in the world.

That makes sense. Through radio reports and movie newsreels, Americans came to know Churchill during World War II. He personified the stoic, gritty, stubborn resistance of the British people to Hitler's aggression.

What strikes me as odd, however, is the fawning, uncritical hero-worship of Churchill among American conservatives nearly 50 years after his death.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Churchill's reputation was based to a great extent on his record as a critic of appeasement. Unlike Neville Chamberlain and his government, Churchill recognized Hitler's danger early on. (Churchill's champions rarely recall, however, that three weeks after Hitler came to power in 1933, Churchill criticized the young Englishmen of the Oxford Union Society who voted not to "fight for country or King" by comparing them unfavorably to young Germans: "I think of Germany, with its splendid clear-eyed youth marching forward on the road of the Reich singing their ancient songs, demanding to be conscripted into an army; eagerly seeking the most terrible weapons of war; burning to suffer and die for their fatherland.")

For a generation of Americans that came to see appeasement as the great failure of their times, Churchill was the unheeded prophet. When he came to Fulton, Missouri in March 1946 and delivered his "Iron Curtain" speech, Churchill quite consciously exploited that status and looked to convert it into American support for a hard-line policy against the Soviet Union: "Last time I saw it all coming and I cried aloud to my own fellow-countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention."

In conservative circles in the United States after World War II, it became commonplace to deride Franklin D. Roosevelt as the naive, idealistic dupe who was taken in by Stalin at Yalta, while Churchill was the wise, cunning statesman who was never fooled by the communist dictator.

This is a convenient myth. Shortly after the Yalta meeting, Churchill remarked to Hugh Dalton: "Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don't think I am wrong about Stalin."

Like FDR, Churchill thought the Yalta agreement was the best they could do, given the power realities on the ground in Europe. In the decades since, however, the myth of Churchill's prescience has only grown, fostered in no small part by his own conscious cultivation of it in his memoirs and elsewhere. As he once put it: "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."

But this image alone is, I think, inadequate to explain the fetishizing of Churchill today--particularly the way it has grown over the last decade.

How is it that a perceived slight to the memory of a British leader has come to suggest a lack of American patriotism?

How did Churchill become more "American" than the American president?

The bust of Churchill is obviously symbolic--but symbolic of what exactly?

I'll attempt to answer that in my next post.

No comments:

Post a Comment