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Charming Handily: Just Like Their Queen, Britons Are Touched by Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama, wife of U.S. President Barack Obama, left, walks with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II at the reception at Buckingham Palace in London Wednesday, April 1, 2009.
Michelle Obama, wife of U.S. President Barack Obama, left, walks with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II at the reception at Buckingham Palace in London Wednesday, April 1, 2009. (Daniel Hambury - AP)

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By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 3, 2009

LONDON, April 2

Michelle Obama, dubbed "Mighty Michelle" and the "new Jacqueline Kennedy" by British media, has dared to do what few have even considered: She put her arm around the queen.

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In photos blasted across front pages and television screens, Queen Elizabeth II and Obama are shown in an embrace at a reception Wednesday.

"Protocol seems to be dispensed with when the Obamas come to town," said the Times of London, which noted that the queen seemed particularly comfortable with the first lady and "put her hand on the back of Mrs. Obama, who did the same for a few moments."

When Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating put his arm around the queen in 1992, he was chastised as "Lizard of Oz."

"In this democratic age, the queen will go along with anything," said Kenneth Rose, a well-known royal biographer. "But like most members of the royal family, she doesn't like to be touched. It doesn't come naturally to press the flesh."

Rose recalled that during Richard Nixon's term in office, Nixon touched Princess Anne and she, rather alarmed at being touched, "shrugged off the presidential arm."

That response, Rose said, was "noted and considered rather rude."

The queen, however, adapts very easily "to this modern thing" of embracing, he said. "If you don't do it, you are considered cold, standoffish and essentially English."

A spokesman from Buckingham Palace, who by tradition is not named, played down any notion that protocol had been breached when Obama's arm rested across the queen's back.

"Despite this notion that we have reams and reams" of etiquette rules, the palace spokesman said, "we don't."

He also said he would not get into the "minute detail" of who touched first.


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