The exchange of gifts seemed to say it all: for Barack Obama, an ornamental pen holder carved from the timbers of the HMS Gannet, a British naval vessel that took part in the battle to end the slave trade; for Gordon Brown, a box set of classic American movies on DVD.
Personally, I’m a big fan of giving DVD box sets as presents. Not only are they cheap, but they look impressive on a bookshelf and can be handily purchased at short notice, due to the fact that they’re piled high in stores that can’t get rid of them. In other words, they’re the perfect last-minute gift for someone you can’t be bothered to expend much time, money or effort on.
Maybe it was laziness on the part of the White House, or maybe it simply reflects the fact the Obama belongs to a generation that attaches more historical and emotional significance to movies than to antiques, however symbolic. Nonetheless, the British press, eager to latch on to any evidence of Obama delivering a “snub” to Brown, was suitably miffed.
Neither Downing Street nor the White House has confirmed which movies were in the collection, but it’s thought to include The Grapes of Wrath, the movie of John Steinbeck’s Great Depression novel. Commentators have drawn obvious parallels between that movie and the current economic climate, but those looking for allegorical rather than literal associations might find another film said to be on the list more interesting: Sunset Boulevard, the story of a faded star hooking up with a younger man in the hopes of resurrecting her career.
Because lame ducks don’t come much lamer than Gordon Brown. In fact he probably wouldn’t be prime minister today were it not for the economic crisis, which broke just as disaffected acolytes were maneuvering to get rid of him. Brown seized the moment, declaring that only he could save Britain, Europe, and indeed the world. He was certainly familiar with the causes of the crisis: having served as chancellor of the exchequer (the British equivalent of treasury secretary) for more than a decade, he was largely responsible for creating the economic conditions that ensured Britain was among the countries worst hit by the downturn.
Like a bolt of lightening animating Frankenstein’s monster, the credit crisis revived the corpse of Brown’s premiership (unfortunately for Brown there’s also more than a passing physical resemblance between the monster and the minister). Labor missed its chance to get a new leader, and now Brown is set to lurch all the way to an election he can’t win. Many would like to see the back of him sooner rather than later, but it’s more likely that he’ll cling on until the latest possible date — summer 2010 — in the hope that something turns up.
So in a desperate bid to generate some favorable headlines, Brown pretty much threw himself at Obama. Watching Brown with the president was like watching a young man on a first date with a girl who’s far clever, funnier, and more attractive than him, knowing he’s out of his league but still trying to impress. Brown leaned eagerly towards Obama, but Obama maintained a detached air. Brown called Obama “Barack”; Obama called Brown “prime minister.”