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The Code of Arms
Just Like Their Queen, Britons Are Touched By Michelle Obama

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.

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.

Several Londoners interviewed said they had been following the discussion about Obama -- including explanations that she likes to wear sleeveless dresses and how tall she really is. (In pictures, the 5-foot-11 first lady towers over the diminutive queen.)

Ester Adewunmi, 50, a retired banker interviewed in north London, wondered what kind of briefing Obama received about how to meet and greet the British royals.

For one thing, she said, "Americans are used to hugging" and "we don't do that as much." As for the embrace, she said, "Good job Michelle didn't kiss her!"

One indication of the attention lavished on Obama was that the Daily Mirror tabloid ran no less than 14 pictures of her and called her a "fashion belle."

The Evening Standard declared: "A razzle dazzling performance from the mighty Michelle."

The BBC, which surmised that "Michelle Obama fever" had hit Britain, said the queen had so warmed to her that she told the first lady before she left the palace, "Now we've met, will you please keep in touch?"

Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.

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