By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
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.