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The Not-So-Special Relationship: Why Obama Snubbed Gordon Brown

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."

Brown clearly needed Obama more than Obama needed him. Several commentators suggested that Brown was hoping some of Obama's "stardust" would rub off on him, although Rachel Sylvester of the Times put it rather more bluntly: "Like the bleeding woman healed by Jesus, so the man haemorrhaging political support hopes to be saved by this modern Messiah." Obama, by contrast, appeared to be thinking: "Why are we here? What's in this for me?"

And Brown tried, he really did. In addition to that pen holder, there was the announcement of an honorary knighthood for Teddy Kennedy (the citation reads "For services to bartending and underwater search and rescue"). The announcement may have gone down badly in Britain, given Teddy's past support for Irish Republican terrorists who murdered hundreds of British soldiers and innocent men, women, and children, but it was calculated to win friends and influence people in Washington.

Obama did indeed give Brown the opportunity to bask in presidential glory. The problem is that Brown also fell victim to what future political historians will call the "McCain effect." Sitting beside the tall, young, vigorous Obama, Brown looked like a leader from a bygone age: old, tired, and physically unattractive; the last of the great European political dinosaurs.

Politics shouldn't be a beauty contest, but at the highest levels, unfortunately, that's what it has become. If it were otherwise, Obama would not now occupy the White House. And so we got the meeting between the prime minister with no charisma and the president with charisma to spare but little else in the way of leadership qualities. It was the meeting between Hope'n'Change and Doom'n'Gloom.

It seemed as if the administration knew how desperate Brown was to be the first European leader to meet with the president and just wanted to get it over with. A half-hour meeting, a working lunch, and a scaled-back media event -- this was the diplomatic equivalent of the bum's rush. It was all a far cry from the bonhomie and mutual admiration of the Blair-Bush days. And the British press loved it, somehow contriving to profess indignation at the treatment of Brown, while at the same time reveling in his humiliation.

Perhaps Obama resents Brown constantly reminding anyone who'll listen that the financial crisis started in the U.S., by way of absolving himself of blame. The last thing Obama wants is a serious discussion about the causes of the crisis, because such a discussion would inevitably lead back to the Community Reinvestment Act, Fannie and Freddie, Dodd and Frank -- and even, perhaps, to the role played by community organizers like Obama himself, who intimidated banks into making bad loans. Or maybe Obama was upset by Brown's warnings about the dangers of protectionism, just when America's unions are preparing to call in some favors from the man they helped elect.

Perhaps Obama was reluctant to buddy up to a leader so closely associated, by way of Blair, with the Bush years. Or maybe the man who wants to bring European-style socialism to American feels that Britain isn't quite "European" enough. Or perhaps he simply didn't see the point in wasting time on a leader who probably won't be around in a year or so.

Still, you'd have thought Obama could have made a bit more of an effort, given that Brown casts himself as a fellow "progressive." And then there's the small matter of Britain being America's staunchest ally in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama will likely have a little more time for Brown after he's told by France and Germany where he can stick his request for more troops.

Obama will pay a return visit to Britain for the G20 summit at the end of this month. Brown, decent chap that he is, will probably resist the temptation to deliver any snubs of his own to the president. That's a shame, because I'd give anything to see the look on Obama's face when he's presented with the DVD box set of The Complete Fawlty Towers.