Rule number one when visiting a foreign country: Don’t insult it.
Mitt Romney did just that on the eve of the London Olympics. In an interview with NBC Wednesday night, Romney said that there were “disconcerting signs” leading into the Olympics.
“You know, it’s hard to know just how well it will turn out,” Romney said. “There are a few things that were disconcerting, the stories about the — private security firm not having enough people — the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging.”
The British were immediately insulted (although the games have been hit with problems), and political watchers wondered if Romney was playing a game with his electorate back home.
Did Romney hope to woo a segment of the American voters who prefers a president without cozy ties to Europe? The tea party contingent, which sees all of Europe as elitist socialists, is one that Romney needs to win in November. A headline on The Drudge Report, which has tight Romney campaign connections, said, “Romney Questions If Brits Are Ready.” Could it all be part of a master campaign plan?
Does Romney like to think of himself as a know-it-all about the Olympics? He led the Salt Lake City games in 2002, after all, and is often applauded for saving those games after a bribery scandal nearly derailed them.
Then again, maybe Romney is just tone-deaf. Again.
His words did very little to win friends and influence people across the pond during Britain’s week on the world stage. The diplomatic flap consumed British media on Thursday especially after Prime Minister David Cameron hit back.
“We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world,” Cameron said. “Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.”
Ouch. (Note to Cameron: Don’t visit Utah any time soon.)
Romney met with Cameron at 10 Downing Street after this verbal match played out in the media. When Romney appeared in front of the cameras in the formal No. 10’s White Room, he had changed his tune. He called the games “fabulous” before saying how he loved watching the torch relay across Britain.
The British media was having none of Romney’s two-faced rhetoric. Guardian reporter Nicholas Watt tweeted, “Mitt Romney rowing back like mad on Oympics (sic): now says outside No. 10 games to be a great success.”
The Guardian posted several stories about the Romney incident on its site including one with the headline, “Romney’s Olympics blunder stuns No. 10 and hands gift to Obama.” As the paper reported: “One senior Whitehall source said: “What a total shocker. We are speechless.”
A commentary entitled “If Mitt Romney doesn’t like us, we shouldn’t care” in “The Telegraph,” stated, “Mitt Romney is perhaps the only politician who could start a trip that was supposed to be a charm offensive by being utterly devoid of charm and mildly offensive.” This is such a stark contrast from when Obama visited London in July 2008. He was cheered in the streets with “Yes We Can.” (So far, no reports of massive cheering for Romney can be found.) Reporters were also quick to point out other Romney blunders.
The GOP candidate seemed to forget Labour Leader Ed Miliband's first name, simply calling him “Mr. Leader.” And in a big British no-no, Romney announced at 10 Downing Street that he had met the chief of MI-6. It's custom for visiting dignitaries not to announce such things, as MI-6 is highly clandestine. (Any James Bond fan knows this.) Romney's next foreign stops include Israel and Poland. Hopefully, he brushes up on his etiquette — and restrains the tone deafness — before the plane lands. There's a vast difference between diplomatic toughness and plain rudeness. Romney showed the latter in London.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker.