The Kenyan cook’s grandson and the king-emperor’s grand-daughter looked very happy together. In fact, along with their spouses, they created an object lesson in how any disparity – in race, age or background – can be turned to advantage in a common cause. And when, as in this case, the cause in question is nothing less than “to reaffirm one of the oldest, one of the strongest alliances the world has ever known” then we can be reassured that all the week’s ceremonial effort has had some tangible benefit.
That’s a thought we might hope the Queen shares, because so much of the effort was hers. Both this week and last, in Ireland and at home, it has been her presence that has humanised momentous events. Alongside the loftier figures of an Uachtaráin and POTUS (“President of the United States”), our own head of state gave a grey-haired master class in the effectiveness well-aimed soft firepower.
“Wow!” was famously Mrs McAleese’s verdict, courtesy of lip readers. Perhaps similar terminology was to be heard as the Obamas made themselves at home in the Belgian Suite at Buckingham Palace (and not just when they found that the plumbing actually worked).
Much has been written of the personal warmth which accompanied the carefully-scripted official displays of friendship between the Monarch and the President. It’s always wise to be cautious when speculating on the real feelings underlying the public images. Even so, we can reasonably conclude, for instance, that respect for his hosts as exemplary members of “the greatest generation” surely comes naturally to the President, raised as he was by his grandparents.
Respect is always a hot topic when leaders meet in front of cameras. On an earlier visit there was synthetic outrage that the First Lady had spontaneously placed a friendly arm on the Sovereign’s back. Anyone watching Michelle Obama dispense hugs to schoolgirls knows that such disarming gestures are second nature to her (Princess Diana would have approved). Less well-reported was the equally-spontaneous way in which Her Majesty reciprocated Mrs Obama’s refreshing lack of inhibition.
That freedom from inhibition, we can guess, adds to the Queen’s apparent affection for these visitors, each with such remarkable personal stories. The pleasure she no doubt felt arranging a carriage ride for the Obamas’ daughters may not have been very different from the willingness with which she agreed to plans for bomb-proofing the President’s suite. The duties of a thoughtful hostess are as instinctive to the Queen as hugging is to Michelle Obama. No wonder they took the chance, so we are told, to “stay in touch.” When generations communicate this well there is, in the President’s slightly star-struck phrase, “a lot of wisdom to be found if you’re willing to listen.”
The Queen has turned the years to her advantage. She was already in the second decade of her reign when this President was born. She has personally known twelve of his predecessors. Figures who to Obama are part of history are to Elizabeth II part of the family scrapbook. That must be helpful when putting the gun salutes, the motorcades and the grand speeches in perspective. According to the New York Times, the visitors were “trying to look presidential without looking superior.” Fortunately for us, that’s one feat the Queen doesn’t even have to attempt.
Such is Britain’s current enthusiasm for all things Obama that someone might already be planning to erect a statue of the man who, whatever his ultimate political fate, will surely find a place in future school texts if only as the first African-American President. One of his predecessors is already being commemorated in stone and bronze. A statue of Ronald Reagan is to be unveiled in Grosvenor Square on 4th July. However skilful the sculptor’s hand, it’s unlikely to eclipse another image from the Queen’s presidential photo-album – that of herself on horseback with The Gipper at her side.
That photo recalls a time when, like today, it was the military dimension of the anglo-US alliance that quietly underscored the ceremonial. The decade of The Falklands, Libya (sound familiar?) and the Soviet Evil Empire is inextricably entwined with memories of Reagan. Reagan pictured with the Queen and, as a reminder that not all female power is soft, with Margaret Thatcher, too.
The Reagan-Thatcher alliance – at least in spirit – was very much alive and well last Tuesday in Washington, DC. On the same evening that Obama raised his glass at the state banquet in London, back in Washington the centenary of Ronald Reagan’s birth was being celebrated in grand style at a black-tie dinner a block or two from the White House.
Among the speakers were the Defence Secretaries of both the US and the UK. Liam Fox caught the mood with a lucid reminder of why the special relationship really is essential. It was Reagan and Thatcher, he concluded, who saw off the Red Menace and it was up to us in our turn “not to let them down.” Cue thunderous applause and much enthusiastic whooping.
As the US Army Chorus sang stirring serenades, several hundred devotees noisily reminisced the heyday of the Ronnie and Maggie show. The nostalgia was as warm and comforting as the evening breeze from the Potomac and – perhaps assisted by Plymouth martinis – when we stood to give Lech Walesa a moist-eyed ovation, it seemed we really had been transported back to a time when our enemies were in plain sight and the world was a simpler place.
Later, back in the hotel, the TV was showing clips from the day’s events in London. There were winces as Obama fluffed his Toast at the banquet, groans as the Presidential limo grounded on the embassy ramp (that was in Dublin but nobody noticed) and incredulity when the commander-in-chief appeared to forget which year he was in. Reagan – so often mocked as senile by the British media – never managed that.
Watching non-Democrats view the scenes of Obama-mania reminded me of that queasy sensation sometimes felt by Brits in America during the Bush years, when we were loudly congratulated on our good fortune to have Tony Blair as Prime Minister. Seen through less adulatory American eyes, the splendid theatricals enjoyed by the Obamas in London were entertaining enough – their meeting with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was described in the US press as an encounter with “one of the few couples in the world even more famous than they are” – but hardly front page.
Perhaps that was because in America, as in Britain, the economy is the real news and Obama’s responses to the combined press corps on this subject were anything but inspirational. Back home, the Senate this week delivered its own verdict on Obama’s proposed budget by delivering a humiliating rejection of 97 votes to nil. And that with a Democrat majority.
Against this background, it’s easy to portray Obama’s current European tour as just a coolly- calculated attempt to woo the all-important ethnic vote before next year’s election. Add the opportunity to look statesmanlike and popular on the international stage at a time when the Republicans have yet to look competitive – and the message of a President playing to the home audience is unmistakable.
This should surprise nobody, even if it does make us special friends feel that little bit less special. Europeans may still be bewitched by the cook’s-grandson-made-good story but the Kenya magic doesn’t cast a spell on the conservative heartland of America.
Obama may be an object of devotion to crowds in Europe but in America his approval ratings are these days less than god-like. So, for a president thirsting after a second term, every Irish vote is worth the detour to drop in at the ancestral Obama village pub for a quick Guinness photo call.
And with Guinness, comfortingly, we find ourselves back with the Queen before whom, during her visit to the St James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin, a special pint was reverently placed. Her Majesty who, unlike the President, has no blue-collar credentials to polish, confined her appreciation to a look of polite interest. When, if ever, can news footage of an elderly lady contemplating a glass of black liquid have carried such historic significance?
You don’t have to have lived – as I did – in Ireland in the 70’s to appreciate the momentous value of the Queen’s visit to the cause of reconciliation.
That glass in Dublin and its more genteel companion at this week’s banquet share a huge weight of symbolism – of an old enmity soothed and an old alliance strengthened. The common factor is one human being upon whom the weight of history, and of the years, seems to have nothing but a rejuvenating effect. Long may they continue to do so.