Love Is in the Air: Why the Special Relationship Reset?
The toasts at last night's state dinner were flowing as readily as the wine specially paired with each of the four courses to honor visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron.
"I’ve learned something about David," President Obama said. "In good times and in bad, he’s just the kind of partner that you want at your side. I trust him. He says what he does, and he does what he says. And I’ve seen his character."
It probably would have been more succinct to say that Obama has finally seen the strength of the U.S.-UK special relationship.
Or, more accurately, the president is waking up to the ways in which he needs that relationship now.
The festivities over the past couple of days, from jetting the Tory to an NCAA March Madness game in Ohio to hosting a fete with bison Wellington and George Clooney, were like the political equivalent of trying to sweep up the shards of your mess with a gold-plated broom using hundreds of finely shredded dollars as the bristles. (Or, cooking up fresh policy on a $2,000-something custom grill.)
Looking at the state dinner program, in addition to the descriptions of the warm lemon steamed pudding and John Legend entertainment, was a listing of the three official visits by the leaders of our special partner to receive state dinners. Tony Blair was honored so by Bill Clinton in 1998; Margaret Thatcher by President Reagan in 1988.
"In 1952, when Winston Churchill had become prime minister for the second time and all the troubles of the cold war -- including the hardships of rearming the West -- were keenly felt, he was having a meeting with a group of American journalists in New York. In Martin Gilbert's extraordinary biography we find recorded these words from Churchill by his doctor, Lord Moran: 'What other nation in history, when it became supremely powerful, has had no thought of territorial aggrandizement, no ambition but to use its resources for the good of the world? I marvel at America's altruism, her sublime disinterestedness,'" Reagan began that toast to his partner in bringing down communism.
"'All at once I realized,' Lord Moran went on, 'Winston was in tears. His eyes were red, his voice faltered, he was deeply moved.' Well, Prime Minister Thatcher, I think you can imagine how humbling it is for an American to read such an account," Reagan said at the 1988 dinner. "Such a tribute from Sir Winston, a man so unselfish himself in pursuit of the cause of freedom, a man who led Britain when Britain stood bravely and unselfishly alone, is only a reminder of how deeply runs the mutual admiration on both sides of the Atlantic."
Obama, too, threw out a Churchill quote last night: “I will say that he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below, of which we have the honor to be the faithful servants.”
And yet the bust of Churchill proudly displayed in the Oval Office, loaned to President Bush after the 9/11 attacks, was evicted less than a month into Obama's presidency.
This initial rebuff rankled many on both sides of the pond and raised concerns about how the special relationship would fare under the new commander in chief.
Then came a series of glacial missteps that made it look like Obama just didn't care much about the strength of those ties.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was the first European leader to visit Obama at the White House in March 2009. Not only did he not get a state dinner, Brown didn't even get a formal joint press conference. Obama associates claimed he was too tired from the strain of the economic crisis to properly welcome America's most important ally. He countered the Browns' carefully selected gifts with cheap DVDs and trinkets from the White House gift shop and promised to chat more with the prime minister ahead of the upcoming G-20. Back to Britain with you.
When British officials and media expressed aghast at the snub, a State Department official told the Sunday Telegraph, "There's nothing special about Britain. You're just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn't expect special treatment."
And that set the unfortunate tone for Washington's relations with London in the new administration.
In May 2010, Labour Party leader Gordon Brown was out and David Cameron was in at 10 Downing Street. The Obamas made a state visit to England at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II in May 2011.
Now, apparently, Obama and Cameron are besties.