Last week the Daily Mail reported that President and Mrs. Obama will not be among the 2,000 invited to Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011, to attend the wedding of Prince William, the older son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana. This news has caused the proverbial tempest in a teapot. How could this snub have come about?
One might well ask, how could this snub not have come about?
Let’s take a brief stroll down memory lane, shall we? Not two weeks into his presidency, Mr. Obama boorishly returned the bust of Sir Winston Churchill to the British ambassador in Washington. Talk about clueless.
Britain and the U.S. were the staunchest of allies since the American entry into World War II on December 7, 1941. Not only was Winston Churchill a courageous wartime partner of FDR, the British leader was later awarded an honorary American citizenship on April 9, 1963 — by John F. Kennedy, who described him as “the most honored and honorable man to walk the stage of human history in the time in which we live. Whenever and wherever tyranny threatened, he has always championed liberty [...] he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle[.]” It is true that Barack Obama was four months shy of his second birthday when Kennedy spoke those words, but the facts are available for him to learn, if not remember.
While 4,500 brave American servicemen and women have given their lives in Iraq during his own adulthood — indeed, partly during his own presidency — 519 valiant British military men and women have died in combat in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars: far more than from any other ally of the United States.
Under these circumstances, what should Obama have done if he didn’t want the bust of Churchill in the Oval Office? Simple answer to simple question: store it in the basement. Or the attic. Who among us has not received house presents that don’t comport with our taste or interests? What do we do when we know the friends who gave us the gifts will visit us again? We take them out of the basement or attic and have them sitting in our living rooms as if they were there from the time our friends left. We don’t have to look at the gift every day, and the friend is none the wiser when he or she returns for another visit.
The one thing no one with any common sense does is make a big deal about returning the present, or, in this case, the loan. And it wasn’t a present or loan to either George W. Bush or to Barack Obama. It was a loan to the people of the United States of America. Prime Minister Tony Blair had given the bust to President George W. Bush as a show of solidarity in the aftermath of 9/11 — as an inspiration to the president in a time of mourning and difficulty for the United States. Blair wanted the American people to know that the British people stood foursquare with them.
No matter all that for President Obama. When the president sent Churchill packing, Newsweek opined,
Maybe it’s no surprise that Obama wouldn’t want Churchill watching over his shoulder. After all, it was Churchill who, in 1952, ordered a crackdown on the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule in Kenya, Obama’s ancestral homeland. Obama’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was labeled a subversive during the uprising and spent months in detention.
But as the president has apparently yet to learn, not everything is about him. If Newsweek’s supposition is correct, he should have moved the bust to another location in the White House, but kept it available for visits from future British prime ministers, the British ambassador, and other UK bigwigs.
From the get-go, our president has failed to absorb one simple fact: the person working in a Washington office that happens to be designed in the shape of an oval is not just Barry Obama, with his Hyde Park, Morningside Heights, and Cambridge 02138 perspectives, provincial and blinkered. When he walks into the Oval Office, he’s the president of the United States of America — not just Blue America or academia.
Another bump on the road to good relations with our closest and most reliable ally came only a month after Obama’s needless return of the Churchill bust. The UK’s newly elected prime minister, blind in one eye and not known as a film buff, arrived for a state visit to Washington, bearing a gift of “an ornamental pen holder made from the timbers of the Victorian anti-slave ship H.M.S. Gannet. The unique present delighted Mr. Obama,” according to the Daily Mail, “because oak from the Gannet’s sister ship, H.M.S. Resolute, was carved to make a desk that has sat in the Oval Office in the White House since 1880.” Prime Minister Brown, added the Mail, “also handed over a framed commission for H.M.S. Resolute and a first edition of the seven-volume biography of Churchill by Sir Martin Gilbert. In addition, Mr. Brown and his wife showered gifts on the Obama children, giving Sasha and Malia an outfit each from Topshop and six children’s books by British authors which are shortly to be published in America.”
And what did the Browns get in return? Two models of Marine One, the presidential helicopter (gifts of which there are obviously a closetful at the White House) and 25 DVDs of American films, available at any Walmart or Target — and, as it happened, unplayable on DVD players in Britain. Not exactly an even exchange.
Leaving aside the political considerations, this is plain bad manners. It delivers the message, “We’re important and you’re not. We don’t even have to pretend to treat you as an equal.”
And the following month, April 2009, in a third consecutive faux pas, our president and his wife paid a state visit to Buckingham Palace, bringing as a gift for the queen…an iPod. It was loaded with videos of the queen’s trip to Virginia two years earlier. Here again, the president failed to do his homework, or even assign the homework to someone else to do. Queen Elizabeth, as it turned out, already had an iPod, a 6 GB silver Mini version she bought in 2005 at the suggestion of her son, Prince Andrew.
Most of us, if we aren’t sure whether a friend already owns a gift we’re thinking of giving, might ask the friend whether he or she already has the item we had in mind. But the president doesn’t even have to do this. He can get the Protocol Office of the White House to find out for him. This is what’s known as one of the perquisites of office. But you have to know to ask. You have to think to ask.
This is one reason presidents often appoint long-time Washington hands to a position in the White House: not for their sheer brilliance, but to help the president avoid rookie mistakes that only serve to make him, and the people he represents, look foolish, incompetent, and provincial.
Not Obama. His White House posse was pure Chicagoland. No old Washington hands for him. So he ended up giving the queen of England something she already had. Tacky. Tacky and avoidable.
Bottom line: rudeness and a lack of consideration for others exact a price in the real world. If it’s a state event, then the president of the United States will be invited, not because he’s Barack Obama, but because Barack Obama is the president of the United States. And if it’s a private event, such as the wedding of the man who (if the monarchy survives) will one day be king of England, Michelle and Barack Obama will be excluded, not because of the color of their skins but because of the content of their characters: inconsiderate, boorish, and rude.