Thursday, March 5, 2009

President Obama Snubs Prime Minister Gordon Brown

No Colgate Moment, Indeed

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, March 4, 2009; A03

Our British cousins are getting the feeling that the new administration doesn't fancy them.

The murmurs began when President Obama returned to the British Embassy the Winston Churchill bust that had been displayed in the Oval Office since Tony Blair lent it to George W. Bush.

The fears intensified when press secretary Robert Gibbs, announcing British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's visit to the White House, demoted the Churchillian phrase "special relationship" to a mere "special partnership" across the Atlantic.

And the alarm bells really went off when Brown's entourage landed at Andrews Air Force Base on Monday night. Obama, breaking with precedent, wouldn't grant the prime minister the customary honor of standing beside him in front of the two nations' flags for the TV cameras. The Camp David sleepover that Blair got on his first meeting with Bush? Sorry, chaps.

Still, Brown kept a stiff upper lip as he sat in the Oval Office yesterday as Obama, skipping the usual words of welcome for his guest, went straight to questions from the news services. Brown didn't get to speak for six minutes, after Obama had already answered two questions. Gamely, the snubbed premier tried to speak the president's language.

"I don't think I could ever compete with you at basketball," Brown said. "Perhaps tennis."

"Tennis? I hear you've got a game," Obama replied mildly.

"Yes, we could maybe have a -- have a shot," the prime minister went on.

"We haven't tried it yet," the president said.

"I don't know," Brown said. "I think you'd be better, but there we are."

Obama smiled faintly. Brown spent much of the session with both soles planted on the floor, his palms gripping his thighs.

For the president -- beloved by the world largely for the fact that he is not Bush -- it was a surprisingly cool reception for an ally. Bush, of course, went in the opposite direction, disclosing at his first meeting with Blair, in February 2001, that they both used Colgate toothpaste. In the next 13 visits Blair made to the United States to meet with Bush, all but one included a full stand-at-the-flags-style news conference, according to CBS News's Mark Knoller, an unofficial statistician of the presidency. The one exception was Blair's last-minute trip after the 2001 terrorist attacks to appear at Bush's address to Congress. When Brown took over, he, too, got the Camp David treatment.

But not this time. Benedict Brogan of Britain's Daily Mail reported on his blog that "the joint press conference No10 was banking on is off. . . . Embarrassing." He later updated the report: "If Downing Street was expecting the kind of love-in that marked the first Blair-Clinton gala at the White House or the Blair-Bush Colgate and video moment at Camp David, this new administration has proved it wrong. There never was going to be a press conference, despite what No10 said. And there is no couple time planned. No Stevie Wonder, no Meet the Parents, no burgers."

Brown, agreed the Spectator's Alex Massie, "may have been treated a little shabbily."

Still, Brown labored not to show the hurt when he was whisked into the West Wing yesterday without ceremony. He brought Obama a pen holder carved from the timbers of the HMS Gannet, sister ship of the HMS Resolute, the wood of which was used to make the Oval Office desk. A small pool of reporters was admitted to the Oval Office to question the two seated leaders, and they emerged with a sometimes-shaky video of the session plagued by audio gaps.

After a question about Russia, the BBC's Nick Robinson observed to the president that "it's often been said that you, unlike many of your predecessors, have not looked towards Europe, let alone Britain."

"The special relationship between the United States and Great Britain is one that is not just important to me, it's important to the American people," Obama assured the British, hitting all the requisite points about common language, culture and the fact that Britain is "where my mother's side of my family came from."

Brown used the moment to deliver his opening statement, which he had not had a chance to make earlier. "Let me -- let me just thank President Obama for his -- for his welcome, for his hospitality, for his leadership," the prime minister offered. He declared that he was "grateful, too, that Michelle and Sarah will be meeting later this afternoon."

A second British reporter asked the two men to describe their personal relationship. Obama, thus prompted, reached out to touch his counterpart's shoulder. "I will say that this is my third meeting with Prime Minister Brown, and I'd like to think that our relationship is terrific," he said. "And I'm sure he won't dispute me -- in front of me, anyway." Obama then listed various impersonal commonalities such as free markets and rule of law before mentioning their "spectacular wives."

"This was very obviously no Colgate moment," the BBC's Robinson judged.

"There was a lackluster quality to it all that did little to assuage the fears," agreed Tim Shipman of Britain's Telegraph.

Somewhere in the British Embassy, a bronze bust of Churchill was turning in its storage crate.


Lee said...

I heard about this on Limbaugh today. In all fairness, we should give BO and team some slack as this was their first big one and they surely learned a bunch. All in all, Americans, IMHO, tend to be rather inept at the whole Miss Manners routine. Recall W rubbing Andrea Merkel's shoulders and RR dozing in front of the Pope. And I witnessed senior Army officers struggle with this sort of thing during several tours in Germany. I've nothing to base my belief on, but I've always thought GHWB and, yes, WJC were pretty good at this game.

VoteNovember2008 said...

Yeah, maybe you are right but you would think there are enough people around that would enlighten them on protocol. I'd hate to think what else they aren't "prepared" for. There's a lot of rumors swirling around about what this was really about. I'll withhold judgment til I understand more about the situation. Thanks for the insight! VN8

Jim said...

Perhaps we can give Prime Minister Brown a bit more Pomp and Circumstance on his next visit. He was quite gracious in announcing that Her Majesty The Queen has awarded an honorary Knighthood for Sir Edward Kennedy saying he is one of America's "most distinguished senators, known in every continent and a great friend. Northern Ireland is today at peace, more Americans have health care, more children around the world are going to school, and for all those things we owe a great debt to the life and courage of Senator Edward Kennedy."

Lee said...

Politically speaking, I've no use for Sen Kennedy. I've always considered him to be dishonest and immoral. I can't, for the life of me, understand how he could possibly have earned such an honor, but whatever. Heck, Rushdie has been knighted also and Jimmy Carter and Arafat received the Nobel Peace Prize. Go figure.

It may be that Kennedy did assist in Northern Ireland. But any contributions he has made to health care and education are arguably negative, at best. I'll have to do some research, but I believe he was the champion for HMOs back in the 80s...that's worked well, hasn't it. I know several Euro types who are amazed that we don't have an all inclusive national health care system, all the while they complain about their own and are amazed at how readily available care is here. Kennedy wants us to go down the same road and we do indeed seem to be headed that direction. I won't even address what he did to Bork and Thomas.

Having said all that, the couple of folks I know who are in the know say Kennedy is a very warm and gracious many in person and that his staff is treated better than any other. I'm sad to see him in poor health and hope his last months are happy.

VoteNovember2008 said...

Lee, I'm awarding you the "Gracious" award. I'll have to take Nexium tonight just because I'm nauseated thinking of the phrase "Sir Kennedy". I'm so sorry that his family is having this experience but I have no pity for Senator Kennedy. He had no pity for Mary Jo Kopechne.

Anonymous said...

I guess I've expressed my ideas on this stuff before. True, BO and his boys probably need to learn international manners. That alone ought to take him down a peg and away from a bit of that arrogance, but it won't. He needs to exercise some caution however, since the good ol' UK is about the only realistic ally we have going forward. After a few failed "reach out" plans regarding the middle east, BO's gonna have to be on his best behavior with the few friends we have left. I hope Lee is right and the guy actually learns something.

Anonymous said...

A point I forgot. We learned it in the military. So, Kennedy is a good guy and gets all these medals from the Queen. Really doesn't make BO's game any better. As we used to say, one "aweshit" cancels 1,000 "attaboys".

VoteNovember2008 said...

Amen, OM1! VN8

Lee said...

Article 1, Section 9:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State.

VoteNovember2008 said...

Lee, yet again you have done your research! Kudos! VN8

Anonymous said...

Fascinating, Lee. Do you teach a class, btw?

Lee said...

Shoot, I picked that nugget up over at