Saturday, August 14, 2010

Obama and the Churchill Bust

Here/s one that had slipped by me:
George W. Bush left a big growling bust of Churchill near his desk in the White House, in an attempt to associate himself with Churchill’s heroic stand against fascism. Barack Obama had it returned to Britain. It’s not hard to guess why: his Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned without trial for two years and tortured on Churchill’s watch, for resisting Churchill’s empire.
That's Johann Hari on what he (or his headline writer) calls "The Two Churchills"--Hari's review of "Churchill's Empire" by Richard Toye.  I haven't read Toye's book although I don't suppose  it will come as a surprise to much of anybody that Churchill was, at once, the bulwark of freedom and an imperialist overlord--a kind of schizophrenia that has run through Western civilization since the slave-holding Greeks first created democracy.

Myself, I've been reading Peter Clarke's "The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire," which offers a possible resolution to the same paradox:  Churchill was a romantic and a dreamer.  His natural habitat was aloft on the free flight of fancy from which vantage from which he just couldn't see the cruel irony that might have imposed itself on the back of poor Hussein Onyango Obama.  A captive of his own imagination, he never escaped from the conviction that he and his lot were born to rule govern--wisely and magnanimously, of course, but govern nonetheless.

It was that attitude which made him, in so many ways, such an awful war leader: always nattering on in his own fantasy-world while his underlings struggled to work round him to carry out the hard work of battle.  Yet the real irony is perhaps that there is no irony--that it was precisely this vision and imagination that impelled him to play his critical role in those few months of 1940 when he was indeed the indispensable man--holding onto his vision at a time when just about anyone else would have been knocked off his perch, and (perhaps even more important) energized to convey his vision to others in a way that made them see how the impossible might just be made possible after all.

Too bad about the bust, though I can hardly blame Obama.  There is more to government than vainglorious flights of oratory.   Yet sometimes there is less, as well.  Obama is well rid of the bust, but he might be wishing he could find a way to recapture some of Churchill's capacity to energize and inspire.

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