Ian Buruma: Nostalgia for Winston Churchill Shows An America in Decline

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Ian Buruma is a professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College, and the author of Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.

The election of the next president of the United States is surely the most important contest in the democratic world. Yet the issues being contested can seem awfully trivial. Consider, for instance, the question of Winston Churchill’s bust.

A bronze sculpture of the British prime minister had been in the Oval Office of the White House since the 1960s. On becoming president, Barack Obama replaced it with a bust of Abraham Lincoln. Mitt Romney, his Republican opponent in November’s election, has vowed to restore it if he wins. Then a White House spokesman said that the bust was still on the premises, just in a different room, whereupon the story changed once more: There were apparently two busts of Churchill; one still in the White House, and one that Obama returned to the British Embassy.

Why would anyone care about this? One answer was provided by two of Romney’s advisers, who stated that their candidate particularly valued the "special relationship" with Britain because of the shared "Anglo-Saxon heritage." This heritage, they claimed, was not sufficiently "appreciated" by the current president.

When this bizarre statement, with its racist undertones, threatened to become a scandal, Romney quickly distanced himself from it. He did not want to be seen as a racist. But how else is his peculiar nostalgia for Churchill’s bust to be understood?..

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