HONOLULU — As customs go, it seems fairly harmless: As they gather for a group “family” photo at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, otherwise fusty and crusty world leaders don funny shirts or accessories, often with loud colors and garish patterns.
Perhaps it is no surprise that the fun-loving President Clinton started the tradition in 1993 when he hosted the summit in Seattle. Other leaders followed suit, offering their counterparts outfits that got increasingly unsightly each annum.
But not this year. Not with President Obama in charge.
With the United States and much of the world mired in financial doldrums, Obama nixed the funny shirt business entirely at this year’s summit. And as the summit began, Obama didn’t say why.
"Two years ago, when I was in Singaporeand it was announced that we would be hosting the APEC Summit here in Honolulu, I promised that you would all have to wear aloha shirts or grass skirts,” Obama said before a luau Saturday night. “But I was persuaded by our team to perhaps break tradition, and so we have not required you to wear your aloha shirts, although I understand that a few of you have tried them on for size, and we may yet see you in them in the next several days."
The leaders wore their business attire to the photo — suits and ties for the men and pant suits for the women. The posed against a backdrop of sunny skies and palm trees, with temperatures in the mid-80s.
Obama’s counterparts took notice. As the leaders of the 21 APEC countries sauntered to the photo staging area under some tall palm trees not too far from the beach, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard mentioned something to Obama about grass hula skirts.
Reporters observing the conversation didn’t hear all of Obama’s reply, but it included the phrase, “It’s embarrassing enough,” and then the words, “coconut bras.”
“Where are the Hawaiian shirts?” wondered Chilean President Sebastian Piñera Echenique.
“We are ending that tradition,” Obama answered, making a horizontal cutting gesture with his right hand.
Later, at his post-summit news conference, a reporter wanted to know if Obama killed the tradition because it might appear frivolous in a time of fiscal uncertainty and economic pain for so many Americans.
No, Obama said. The shirts just looked embarrassing.
“I had looked at pictures of some of the previous APEC meetings and some of the garb that had appeared previously, and I thought this may be a tradition that we might want to break,” he said. “We gave them a shirt, and if they wanted to wear the shirt, I promise you it would have been fine. But I didn’t hear a lot of complaints about us breaking precedent on that one.”
Still, given the warm temperatures, Obama might have been better served by a Hawaiian shirt. As he left the photo staging area, the president was spotted removing his suit jacket as he tried to cool off a bit.