LONDON — When reporters toured the recently redecorated Oval Office on Wednesday at the White House, they took note of the symbolic changes in scenery that have come to stand in for an incoming U.S. president’s view of the nation. President Biden’s choices included a portrait of wartime President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a bust of civil rights hero Rosa Parks.
But as Biden began his first full day in office the next morning, many British outlets pounced on a notable absence: a bust of Winston Churchill, FDR’s World War II counterpart, on loan from the British government.
British tabloids did not hesitate to read between the supposed lines.
“CHURCHILL SNUB,” read a headline in the Sun, a right-wing tabloid that acts as a dogged defender of all things English.
“Fury as Joe Biden REMOVES bust of Boris Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill from the Oval Office,” wrote the conservative Daily Mail, while the left-wing tabloid the Mirror reported that the bust was “nowhere in sight.”
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British officials have downplayed the possibility of any latent meaning in the change. “It’s of course up to the President to decorate the Oval Office as he wishes,” an unnamed British government spokesperson said in a statement emailed to reporters. “We’re in no doubt about the importance President Biden places on the UK-US relationship.”
The White House press team did not respond immediately to a question about the bust’s removal.
The headlines about the bust-up came amid heightened scrutiny of the relationship between Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson after President Donald Trump’s departure from the White House. Some British outlets have speculated that Biden, proud of his Irish American roots, is unlikely to form a rapport with Johnson, a nationalistic leader who supported Brexit and publicly praised Trump.
During recent years, the placement of the Churchill bust has emerged as an object of media fascination in Britain. Some of the wildest speculation in years past has come from Johnson himself, who criticized a previous banishment of the bust during President Barack Obama’s administration in a newspaper column.
Johnson, then the mayor of London, wrote in 2016 that the “part-Kenyan” Obama may have removed the bust because he harbored an “ancestral dislike of the British Empire — of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.”
The bust of Churchill that once was in the Oval Office has a convoluted history. Made by English sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, it had traditionally been held at the British ambassador’s residence in Washington but was loaned to President George W. Bush in July 2001.
The bust was initially loaned because another bust of Churchill owned by the White House was being repaired. It was kept on in the Oval Office throughout Bush’s two terms. The White House-owned bust, also designed by Epstein and nearly identical to the British one, is generally held outside the residential area of the building.
The presence of the Churchill bust in the Oval Office received little notice until it was removed during the Obama administration. The bust was returned to the British ambassador because there was not enough space for it, Obama said at the time.
“There are only so many tables where you can put busts — otherwise it starts looking a little cluttered,” Obama said in 2016. Obama later clarified that the White House still displayed the other bust near his residence.
Trump had sought to bust the statue back out when he took office, telling reporters in 2017 that he was a fan of Churchill and that Churchill had been a “real ally” to the United States in the past. Initially he placed the White House-owned bust in the Oval Office, later replacing it with the bust on loan from the British government.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, Britain’s ambassador to the United States said that the country was happy to loan goods for the Oval Office but that it was up to Biden how he decorates.
“If there’s anything that President Biden would like that we can provide we will be very happy to do so,” Karen Pierce said. “But we will be equally content if he just stamps his personal mark on it.”
But many in Britain’s right-wing media felt differently. By Thursday afternoon local time, Churchill’s name was one of the top trending topics on Twitter in Britain as many offered their thoughts and opinions on Biden’s decision and the special relationship between both countries at the outset of the Biden presidency.
Brexit backer Nigel Farage said Thursday that if it was true that the bust had been removed by Biden, it would be “a slap in the face to the British and any prospects of good relations.”
British journalist Andrew Pierce, who writes for the Daily Mail, said it was “sad” that the new president had taken down Churchill’s bust but added that it was “very worrying” that he had replaced it “with the hard-left failed socialist Cesar Chavez,” an American labor leader and civil rights activist.
Churchill’s legacy is a delicate and divisive issue in Britain. A large statue of him outside the Palace of Westminster was placed in a protective wooden box last year to prevent further acts of vandalism after demonstrators had written the words “was a racist” on it during a Black Lives Matter anti-racism protest in June, following the death of George Floyd in police custody in the U.S. city of Minneapolis.
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At the time, Johnson, who has compared himself to Churchill and has written a laudatory biography of the wartime prime minister, took to Twitter to condemn the actions of those protesting. He called the defacing of the national monument “absurd and shameful,” adding that it was impossible to try to change the past or the actions and thoughts of those who led the country decades ago.
“Yes, he sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today, but he was a hero, and he fully deserves his memorial,” Johnson tweeted as he urged people not to topple statues across the country. “To tear them down would be to lie about our history.”