Leaders come together to honor Sir Winston Churchill, a ‘titan of democracy’

Winston Churchill takes his place among the great in Statuary Hall

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WASHINGTON -- The voice of Sir Winston Churchill echoed through the U.S. Capitol for the first time since the 1940s.

The former British prime minister's distinctive cadence emanated from a recording of a speech made 72 years ago, and replayed Wednesday during a ceremony to unveil a bronze bust of the world leader in the U.S. Capitol, where it now has a home among statues of American presidents, statesmen and heroes.

In that Dec. 26, 1941, speech, Churchill said the experience of addressing Congress was "one of the most moving and thrilling in my life" and one he wished his American-born mother had lived long enough to see.

Those words rang out again Wednesday in Statuary Hall, where leaders of the House and Senate came together in an unusual display of bipartisanship to honor a man House Speaker John Boehner called the best friend America ever had. "We are here today together to bring it full circle. For today -- with peace, justice and a touch of majesty -- Winston Churchill returns to the United States Capitol," said Mr. Boehner, R-Ohio.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Churchill was a hero in his own country and in the United States.

"Winston stands as one of the titans of democracy, a giant whose courage serves as an example across the generations and throughout the ages," she said. "He will always hold a place in American memory. Now he will hold a special place in the Capitol of the United States."

Such a dedication would have seemed improbable two centuries ago when the British were trying to burn down the Capitol that now reserves a place of honor for the United Kingdom's favorite son.

"We are sometimes [separated] by oceans, and we are sometimes separated by political party or by ideology," said Secretary of State John Kerry.

"But this bust will remind us of the bridges that we must build to span the gaps so that the work of democracy can continue, so that together we might fulfill the solemn duty to carry forward the cause of freedom and fundamental rights, and so that we can strengthen our alliances."

The placement of the sculpture follows a controversy over reports that another Churchill bust had been unceremoniously removed from the Oval Office and returned to the British embassy early in President Barack Obama's first term. The incident became campaign fodder for Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

According to the British Embassy, the British government loaned the bust to President George W. Bush after 9/11 to symbolize the countries' strong transatlantic relationship.

"In line with common practice, art loaned to the Bush presidency was returned at the end of the president's term," said a statement from the British embassy in Washington, where the bust is now on display. "The return of the Churchill bust to the U.K. government was set in [motion] before President Barack Obama's arrival in the White House."

White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer has said a second bust that had been in the Oval Office -- a gift from the Wartime Friends of Winston Churchill in 1965 -- was moved to the first family's residence to make room for a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln.

Some Churchillians still believe Mr. Obama ordered it removed out of disdain for British colonialism, but on Wednesday any cynicism was outweighed by their appreciation for placement of the bust a mile and a half away at the Capitol.

Much of that appreciation is born of the fact that Churchill was more than the iconic freedom fighter who led the Allies against Adolf Hitler: He also was a historian, an artist, a skilled orator, a novelist, a war correspondent, a father, a bricklayer, a British Army officer, an oil lobbyist, a member of Parliament and a cabinet secretary.

The resplendent -- if scowling -- bust was donated by the Churchill Centre of Chicago, whose director, Lee Pollock, was glad to see leaders of all four legislative caucuses come together, a recognition that Churchill's legacy transcends time, place and party.

"There seems to be some division in America about our future, and this is a great opportunity to think about a leader that people on all sides of the political spectrum respect," Mr. Pollock said in an interview.

The piece is a rare casting of a bust that artist Oscar Nemon sculpted from life. Only two other copies exist -- one in London's Churchill War Rooms and one in Moscow's Museum of the Great Patriotic War.

Churchill descendants who traveled from the United Kingdom for the ceremony said they were touched by the gesture.

Randolph Churchill said the bust is an enduring sign that his great-grandfather's memory will remain a beacon for free men and free women everywhere.

"It is a wonderful, resonate and fitting tribute, and one that would have caused him great pride and great pleasure," he said.

Churchill died in 1965 at age 90.

Washington bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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