And then there’s the desk — or “secrétaire,” as the new ambassador calls it. (His previous post was in Paris.) It’s a striking addition to the drawing room, decorated in reds and golden-yellow with exotic characters from far-off places. But the most striking thing about it is how well it matches the couches, the curtains and the carpets. It fits in so well, it looks as if it’s been here forever.
A little like Peter Westmacott himself, who has the air — as he eases into his favorite golden-yellow couch (the one he says is best for his troublesome back) — of a man who belongs.
That sense of belonging will be put to the test this week. On Tuesday, just two months after his arrival, Westmacott, 61, will welcome his boss, British Prime Minister David Cameron, for the kind of official visit that an ambassador might expect to oversee once in a four-year tenure.
Cameron will stay at Blair House, eat lunch at the State Department and dine at the White House on Wednesday night. Westmacott says he and his staff “have lots to do to make sure we get that right,” that “nothing is left to chance.” For, as the man who’s reached the tippity top of the British diplomatic tree will tell you, when you are preparing for very big events, little things matter.
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They often matter, says Westmacott, “in inverse proportion to their importance.” So getting ready for a visit like this, he says, which will include talks about the countries’ common military commitments and economic ties, involves avoiding silly slips or, as he puts it, making sure “you don’t score own goals.”
He’s seen breaches of protocol — such as foreign leaders breaking the don’t-touch-the-queen rule — send the British press “bonkers.” In contrast, a “most perfect demure curtsy” that Carla Bruni, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, executed upon meeting the queen in 2008 was the thing that convinced Westmacott that the visit “was going to be a success.”
Overshadowing this prime minister’s visit in many people’s memory is the previous prime minister’s visit in 2009, when it was the home team that scored an own goal.
The gaffe then was over gifts.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown brought Obama framed commissioning papers for HMS Resolute, the ship from which the Oval Office desk is hewn; a pen holder carved from the timbers of HMS Gannet, which served on anti-slavery missions; and a hefty biography of Winston Churchill, who put special emphasis on the special relationship.
Obama reciprocated with a set of 25 American movie classics — which turned out to be incompatible with British DVD players.