Isn't That Special?

The prime minister reminisced about the Blitz, and the president spoke of burgers.
The prime minister reminisced about the Blitz, and the president spoke of burgers. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
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By Dana Milbank
Friday, April 18, 2008

You know times are tough when the American president and the British prime minister start talking about the good ol' days of the Blitz.

President Bush and Prime Minister Gordon Brown found themselves in such a situation yesterday as they faced the cameras in the Rose Garden. Unpopular wars and economic crises have dragged both men to standings not seen since the World War II era: Bush is now the most consistently unpopular president since Truman, and Brown's support has plunged faster than Neville Chamberlain's after he appeased Hitler.

And so it was, perhaps, inevitable, that the beleaguered pair would start off their news conference talking about Winston Churchill and the "Special Relationship."

"I appreciate our special relationship with Britain," Bush said upon taking the podium.

"It's my profound belief that over many decades no international partnership has served the world better than the special relationship between our two countries," Brown reciprocated, recalling "the darkest days of the Second World War when the strongest transatlantic partnership was forged."

Reporters knew what the two were up to. "Some people would suggest that the special relationship is a little less special than it was," a correspondent with Britain's ITN pointed out.

"False!" Bush argued before the questioner finished. "We've got a great relationship. . . . Our special relationship has been forged in common values . . . And so our relationship is very special . . . There's just such a uniqueness in the relationship."

The president would have been well advised to leave it at that, but he went on, likening the two nations to jealous lovers. "That's not to say you can't have other friends, and we do, but this is a unique relationship, it truly is," Bush maintained.

Even then, the president felt an inexplicable need to say more, tying the transatlantic alliance to the dinner invitation he extended to Brown. "I value my personal friendship, as well as our relationship between our countries," he went on. "Look, if it wasn't a personal relationship, I wouldn't be inviting the man to a nice hamburger or something. Well done, I might add."

Well done? Was it a jab at the stereotype that Britons overcook their meat? Or a reference to E. coli contamination in American beef? (Rather than risk an international incident, the White House decided to go with a ribeye instead.)

No matter: The two men had far bigger problems to discuss. Indeed, listening to Brown and "Boosh," as the Scotsman called his counterpart, gave a powerful sense of just how grim the times have become. They spoke of violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, problems with Iran and Zimbabwe, AIDS in Africa, the credit crunch, the housing crisis, soaring fuel prices, and even, as Brown described it, "food riots in many countries, the lowest supply of food for 30 years."

Times are so bad, in fact, that Brown flew to America on a plane provided by the discount charter company Titan Airways. The stature of the two leaders had shrunk so much that there were empty seats in the Rose Garden yesterday, and only Fox News bothered to have its correspondent do a live report from the event. When aides preceded the two leaders to the Rose Garden, they left the door to the Oval Office ajar -- forcing the president himself to reach out and pull the door shut so he could make his grand entrance.

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