WASHINGTON — Shortly after 9/11, President George W. Bush received from Prime Minister Tony Blair a bust of Winston Churchill as an expression of British-American solidarity. Bush gave it pride of place in the Oval Office.
In my Friday column about Mitt Romney’s trip abroad and U.S. foreign policy, I wrote that Barack Obama “started his presidency by returning to the British Embassy the bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office.”
Within hours, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer had created something of a bonfire. Citing my statement, he posted a furious blog on the White House website, saying, “normally we wouldn’t address a rumor that’s so patently false, but just this morning The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer repeated this ridiculous claim in his column. … This is 100% false. The bust [is] still in the White House. In the Residence. Outside the Treaty Room.”
Except that it isn’t. As the British Embassy said in a statement issued just a few hours later, “the bust now resides in the British ambassador’s residence in Washington D.C.”
As the British Embassy explained in 2009, the bust “was lent for the first term of office of President Bush. When the president was elected for his second and final term, the loan was extended until January 2009. The new president has decided not to continue this loan and the bust has now been returned.”
At which point, one would expect Pfeiffer to say: Sorry, I made a mistake. End of story.
But Pfeiffer had an additional problem. In his original post, he had provided photographic proof of his claim that the Oval Office Churchill had never been returned, indeed had never left the White House at all, but had simply been moved from the Oval Office to the residence.
“Here’s a picture of the president showing off the Churchill bust to Prime Minister Cameron when he visited the White House residence in 2010,” he wrote. “Hopefully this clears things up a bit and prevents folks from making this ridiculous claim again.”
Except that the photo does nothing of the sort. The Churchill sculpture shown in the photograph is a different copy — given to President Lyndon Johnson, kept in the White House collection for half a century and displayed in the White House residence. The Oval Office Churchill — the one in question, the one Pfeiffer says never left the White House — did leave the White House, was returned to the British government, and sits proudly at this very moment in the British ambassador’s residence.
Was that little photographic switcheroo an honest mistake on Pfeiffer’s part? Or was it deliberate deception? I have no idea. But in either case, the effect was to deceive Pfeiffer’s readers into believing that my assertion about the removal of the Oval Office Churchill was “patently false … ridiculous … 100% false.”
The decent thing to do, therefore, would be to acknowledge the (inadvertent?) deception and apologize for it. He could send the retraction to New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, who at first repeated Pfeiffer’s denunciation of the Churchill bust “falsehood,” and then later honorably corrected himself, admitting that “I got some facts wrong, because I made the mistake of relying on a White House blog post by the communications director Dan Pfeiffer.” Rosenthal then chided Pfeiffer for posting “a weaselly follow-up comment” after the facts became clear that “fails to acknowledge that his post … was false.”
In my view, this whole affair was entirely unnecessary. Pfeiffer devoted an entire post (with accompanying photography) on the White House Blog to a single sentence in a larger argument about foreign policy, and blew it up into an indignant defense of truth itself and a handy club with which to discredit the credibility of a persistent critic of his boss. (After all, why now? Why this column? Since the return of the Oval Office Churchill in 2009, that fact had been asserted in at least half a dozen major news outlets, including Newsweek, CBS News, ABC News, the Telegraph and The Washington Post.)
So I suggest Mr. Pfeiffer bring this to a short, painless and honorable conclusion: a simple admission that he got it wrong and that my assertion was correct. An apology would be nice, but given this White House’s arm’s-length relationship with truth — and given Ryan Zimmerman’s hot hitting — I reckon the Nationals will win the World Series before I receive Pfeiffer’s mea culpa.