One of America’s most stalwart international allies for the last seventy years has been the United Kingdom. But it has been somewhat of a rocky relationship since President Obama took office. The Obama Administration made some ham handed mistakes in diplomatic etiquette that were off-putting, like Obama returning the Oval Office bust of Winston Churchill that the UK permanently loaned America after suffering the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The strains of British troop contributions for an unpopular continuing conflict in Afghanistan complicates bilateral relations. Moreover, the emphasis which the Obama Administration has placed on other relations strikes at the British conceit of the Special Anglo-American relationship, which has been a hallmark of the post Empire British psyche. So British Prime Minister David Cameron’s official visit to the United States presents a moment to heal the hurt between long-standing allies.
As Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Prime Minister Cameron’s visit is labeled an “official visit”, but is the functional equivalent of a state visit, including an arrival ceremony and a formal banquet at the White House.
President Obama chose to do something different acting as an official host for our close ally. Mr. Obama took Mr. Cameron on a side trip to Dayton, Ohio to see the first round of the NCAA March Madness championship basketball tournament.
Based on Prime Minister Cameron’s “fast and furious” action quip, it is dubious that Cameron is a big hoops fan, but President Obama is. So why not have a “Boys Night Out” that humanizes the incumbent President to a swing state on the taxpayers dime? After all, the photo op/media moment in the swing election state of Ohio only cost an estimated $478,000. In addition, Obama scored an "earned media" spot on TBS, CBS, TNT & Tru TV. It’s good to be the...President.
Presents have been a problem for the West Wing, particularly with the British. When former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited the White House in 2009, Brown presented President Obama a pen holder that was crafted from the 19th Century British Warship HMS President (the sister ship of the HMS Resolute , of which the President’s desk is crafted). In return, President Obama gave the Prime Minister a 25 DVD set of American movie classics. Aside from the fact that it could easily be picked up at Wal-Mart’s bargain bin, the DVDs were coded in Region 3, so the British P.M. would have difficulty playing them. Moreover, Mr. Brown is blind in one eye so watching movies on the telly might not have been his preferred pastime.
For the Obama girls, Mrs. Brown gave trendy fitted dresses for Sasha and Malia along with a selection of books by British authors. First Lady Michelle Obama apparently forgot to get gifts for the two Brown boys, so an aide was sent scrambling to procure a couple of toy Marine One helicopters from the White House gift shop.
This gift gaffe was matched only by President Obama’s gift to Queen Elizabeth for his first State visit to the UK. The Queen was given an I-Pod that was filled with speeches by President Obama. Now that’s thinking different. Two years later the Obama White House Protocol Department tried to demonstrate that it was not staffed by the likes of a Goldie Hawn character and the gifts were more suitable. Queen Elizabeth received a leather-bound picture book of her parents 1939 trip to the US, the Royal Consort Prince Phillip received some rare bits and shanks from Jamaica, a Champion US carriage horse. And the potty Duke of Edinburgh Prince Charles received seeds, honey and plants from the grounds of Monticello, Mount Vernon and the White House.
With this history in mind, both Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama chose tongue in cheek gifts to exchange on this visit. Prime Minister Cameron was given a custom grill displaying both the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. The grille gift recalls their joint moment between Cameron and Obama jointly serving troops from a grill. History buffs might also see a symbolic connection with the bicentennial of British troops burning the White House during the War of 1812. While it remains to be seen how much grilling Cameron will do at 10 Downing Street, it must have been all worthwhile to have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton describe the grill as "a real, down-home American barbeque with a smoking compartment and everything else."
President Obama received a pool table along with a pingpong table. The story behind this is that Cameron entertained the President by playing table tennis with some local students and the Commander in Chief’s side got thrashed. So the hoop dreams might have been another form of payback. Michelle Obama gave Mrs. Cameron some home made White House Honey. The Cameron children received bean bag chairs embroidered with their names and the Presidential seal. Super self referential tokens of affection for the representatives of our long time ally.
Perhaps their two hours of talks, including a half hour private visit in the Oval Office, were productive. There were many things to discuss, such as shifting military operations in Afghanistan to a back burner support role. The Syrian situation merited some strategizing. And of course the Iranian atomic intransigence should have elicited some candid exchanges between leaders of the UK and the USA.
At least the 6,500 attendees to the belated official White House welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn were treated to a colorful ceremony on a sunny and warm mid March morning.