Winston Churchill returned to Washington, DC yesterday. The former British Prime Minister was the star of the show at the Capitol's National Statuary Hall, where a bust dedicated to him was unveiled before worshipful legislators, including House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid. Even Roger Daltrey of the Who was summoned to sing a dedication—"Won't Get Fooled Again"—to Churchill.
It was a rare moment of comity for Congress. Everyone could agree that the old boy was a great man who had sealed Britain's friendship with America at a time of crisis. Boehner called him "the best friend America ever had." Of course America was also the only major friend he had—Churchill was desperate to persuade Franklin D. Roosevelt to assist an embattled England in 1940, when the Nazi empire was at the apogee of its power. Later on, Roosevelt would snub Churchill at the Big Three Conferences—staying at the Soviet embassy in Tehran in 1943 (where he his suite was of course bugged) and trying to cozy up to "Uncle Joe," as he called him, at Yalta in 1945.
FDR was no fan of the British empire. In fact, he saw it as an obstacle to peace after the war was concluded. It was Harry S Truman who probably had more in common with Churchill, at least when it came to dealing with the Soviet Union. Eventually, the Washington, under Dwight Eisenhower, became even more hawkish than the British prime minister who wanted to see if a detente could be reached with Moscow after Stalin died.
Since then, Churchill has become the statesman that American politicians routinely invoke. George W. Bush stuck his bust in the White House. Barack Obama got into a bit of hot water when he removed it—insufficient piety. John Kerry recently announced that facing down Syria on chemical weapons was a "Churchill moment." Neoconservatives routinely use his name to invoke a new Munich—whenever and wherever possible. Whether Churchill would recognize himself in all the fulsome tributes is somewhat questionable. His career was a failure—or would have been seen as one—had the Second World War not occurred. He had switched from Tory to Liberal back to Tory and was widely viewed as unreliable and unstable.
But in Washington, Churchill has become a vital strut in the belief that American is an exceptional nation, destined to bring democracy abroad. Secretary Kerry announced at the dedication,
With so many challenges all across the world today, struggles to be won, pandemics to be defeated, history yet to be defined, Churchill can be heard once again with this bust, asking all of us to define our time here not in shutdowns or showdowns, but in a manner befitting of a country that still stands, as he said then, at the pinnacle of power.
Boehner added that the area around the bust will now be known as the "Freedom Foyer." It's a remarkable tribute to a leader who commands more reverence in America than he does in England itself. At a moment of polarization, he is the one thing its politicians seem able to agree on. He has literally become an idol. In this regard, he has, to borrow the title from his great series of books about World War II, created a new grand alliance.