In the middle of March, President and Mrs. Obama will host a state dinner for British prime minister David Cameron and his first lady, Samantha (known in Britain’s popular press as “Sam Cam”). It should be a fairly glamorous affair, and reported as so. The Obamas are about 50, and the Camerons several years younger than that. All four individuals have a sense of style. Photographers will be pleased.
Obama and Cameron may not be FDR and Churchill, or Ronnie and Maggie, but they are said to get on. No one would say, though, that the course of Anglo-American relations, in the time of Obama, has run smooth. Shall we have a review?
It all started a few days after Obama was sworn in, when he unceremoniously returned to the British government a bust of Churchill that had been in the Oval Office. Her Majesty’s Government lent it to President George W. Bush after 9/11, in one of its many shows of solidarity. Plus, wasn’t Churchillian determination and clarity called for at this hour?
From the White House, the bust went to the home of the British ambassador in Washington. An experienced Washington hand tells the following story: One night after dinner, the ambassador and an American visitor were looking at the bust. The ambassador remarked to his visitor, “We are keeping it here for the time being, trusting that your next president, whoever he is, will want it back.”
When Obama returned the bust, he stoked a longstanding anxiety in Britain: an anxiety about Americans’ regard for “the special relationship,” as Churchill dubbed the U.S.-U.K. alliance. The way a Telegraph writer put it was, “The rejection of the bust has left some British officials nervously reading the runes to see how much influence the UK can wield with the new regime in Washington.” Britons wanted to know, Who is this new president, and what makes him tick?
A writer in the Independent expressed a view that was found all over the British media: “It’s not surprising that Mr Obama didn’t want Churchill looking over his shoulder as it was Churchill who ordered the crackdown on the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya in 1952, a time when Mr Obama’s grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama was labelled a subversive and thrown into detention.”
A few weeks after Bust-gate, Gordon Brown, then serving as prime minister, called on Obama. He brought with him a notably thoughtful gift: an ornamental penholder made from timbers of HMS Gannet, a Victorian anti-slaving ship. The press described Gannet as a sister ship of HMS Resolute, from which the famous Oval Office desk was made. In addition, Brown gave Obama a framed commission for Resolute and a first edition of Sir Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume biography of Churchill (oops).
And what did Obama give Brown, his guest? A box set of DVDs, containing classic American movies: Some Like It Hot, Raging Bull, Star Wars: Episode IV, and so on. In the main, British commentators were aghast at this gift, calling it cheesy, cheap, and unworthy. They pointed out that Brown wasn’t known as a film buff and that the discs were unplayable on British DVD players anyway. Did Obama mean to send another signal that the once-special relationship was to be downgraded?