The State Department’s release of its annual inventory of bizarre — though we’re sure very thoughtful — gifts that federal government officials received from foreign governments got us thinking. When you’re handed 20 baseball hats with your picture on them, what do you possibly say?
It’s a bit like opening socks on Christmas morning from your aunt. You must smile and feign excitement.
The proper response is something of an art form honed over time. We reached out to the experienced former secretary of state Colin Powell to get his tips on how to react when opening even the most random of gifts from a foreign leader.
“You’ve got to remember that these are given to you as a sign of respect,” he told the Loop, so the first rule is “you must never show any sign of disfavor” with the offering or be in any way “brusque” or dismissive.
So you should say something like: “Thank you, my dear friend, this will bind us, and our two countries even more closely,” he said.
Also, be country-specific. Whenever you get something from the French, for example, “bring up the Revolutionary War,” Powell recommends, and how much the French help meant to us.
Praise the gift, Powell advised, by saying things like: “This will occupy a treasured place in my office.” That can be a little tricky, he cautioned, especially if the giver happens to come to town and see that the gift occupies no place at all.
As an alternative, say: “This will occupy an honored place in my home.” Odds are the person won’t ever be in your home.
(Of course, most gifts go straight to National Archives storage.)
Judging by the 2013 list, foreign governments have a real thing for giving American leaders paintings of themselves. The Palestinian Authority gave President Obama a painting of him juxtaposed with Abraham Lincoln. (Real subtle.)
Such portraits can present some very tricky problems, Powell said, and your initial reaction must not violate the first rule (see above). Often the portrait sits there under a drape. “So try, if at all possible, to have a staffer sneak a peek” so you can be prepared, he said.
And you need to be prepared. Powell recalled getting a portrait from a Balkan country that made him look a lot like Count Dracula. There was another from Japan that had him with a vague resemblance to Emperor Hirohito, and one from Egypt where he might have been a cousin to former leader Hosni Mubarak.
Some of these “are prominently displayed in my hot tub room,” he noted. (Yes, Loop fans, Powell has a hot tub room.)
The list of 2013 gifts has some real gems. We handpicked some favorites from notable benefactors, and imagined some likely Obama responses using Powell’s advice.
1. Jakava Kikwete, president of Tanzania, gave Obama a “full zebra skin mounted on felt.” (“I saw something just like this at West Elm. How did you know?”)
2. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, had made a painting of “President Obama juxtaposed with President Lincoln with gold border.” (“This will look fabulous in the Lincoln Bedroom.”)
3. Perhaps the most practical gift Obama received last year came from the Sultan of Brunei, who gave Obama an iPad mini with an international power cord. (“I so needed one of these! You know, when I was in Senegal, my iPad ran out of juice right in the middle of ‘House of Cards.’ “)
4. The king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, gave Obama $2,844 worth of Godiva chocolates. That is a lot of chocolate. (“Quick, give me a few before Michelle finds out.”)
5. Ali Mohamed Shein, president of Zanzibar, presented the president with “20 white baseball caps” with Obama’s picture printed on them. (“You really shouldn’t have.”)
6. Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Obama a six-piece “porcelain espresso cup set with gold inside and silver leaf pattern on outside.” (“Thanks Vlad. Next time you’re in town we’ll take a stroll to Starbucks.”) Note: Obama is not known for being a big coffee drinker, he reportedly prefers tea. But we wouldn’t expect Putin to know that.
Most of the time, we’re sure officials are more than happy to have the gifts sent right to the Archives basement. But every once in a while, an official receives a present worth keeping.
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton bought for $970 a “black two-strand cushion pearl necklace with gemstones on a copper clasp” she received as a gift in Burma in 2012. (“Lovely! It’ll go perfectly with my new pantsuit.”)