Countries:
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Candidates:
Barack Obama
Issues:
International Relations
 

The task of redecorating the Oval Office includes remembering and re-imagining trans-Atlantic relations

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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