Apparently, there was a scramble among Britain’s top political leaders to be seen and photographed with Barack Obama, the U.S. Democratic presidential nominee, when he spent a few hours in London last weekend at the end of his week-long overseas trip.
Downing Street was reportedly upset when it emerged that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had been upstaged by his old rival Tony Blair in the battle for the top slot in Mr. Obama’s diary: Mr. Obama had decided to have breakfast with Mr. Blair first before meeting the Prime Minister.
The logic of the Obama team in giving priority to Mr. Blair was simple: Because he was much better known in America than Mr. Brown a cosy breakfast meeting with him would play well with voters back home, they reckoned. Officially, though, the line was that Mr. Obama was keen to meet Mr Blair, who is currently the international community’s envoy to West Asia, because he wanted to be updated on the situation in region by the man who knew it best.
There was little that Downing Street could do but to swallow its pride. But having lost to Mr. Blair, it was in no mood to allow David Cameron, the Tory leader, to steal whatever was left of that morning’s thunder. The Times reported that there was “high tension” when the Prime Minister’s office was informed that after the Brown-Obama meeting Mr. Cameron planned to “collect” Mr. Obama from Downing Street and the pair would then walk down to Parliament.
Sensing that it was an attempt by Mr. Cameron to hog an extended photo-opportunity with Mr. Obama, Prime Minister’s men put their foot down and rejected the idea.
“The Obama team withdrew the suggestion after high-level representation from senior government figures,” The Times report said.
But Mr. Cameron still managed to make the most of the new arrangement whereby Mr. Obama drove to the Houses of Parliament to meet him. As the two leaders stood at the gate, Mr. Cameron lingered long enough to make sure that the TV crews were able to film them against the backdrop of the historic Big Ben.
Back in Downing Street, Mr. Brown’s minders got round the protocol, which prevented him from appearing together Mr. Obama on the steps of No. 10 (because he had not done so when the Republican candidate John McCain came calling two months ago), by organising a neatly-choreographed “spontaneous” stroll for two leaders in the sprawling Horse Guards Parade grounds behind Downing Street. And judging from the splash the footage got in the media (repeated TV replays and front-page display in next day’s papers) it was a smash hit.
In the end, all three leaders — Brown, Blair, Cameron — claimed that Mr. Obama ended up spending more time with them than originally scheduled. Whom he met in what sequence and for how long was considered so newsworthy that The Independent reproduced the exact duration of each meeting down to the last minute: Obama-Blair: one hour, 9 minutes; Obama-Brown two hours, 10 minutes; and Obama-Cameron one hour, 10 minutes. Another newspaper — The Sunday Telegraph — offered a comparative analysis of the respective British leaders’ body language when they met Mr. Obama. Take a look and figure out for yourself whose body-language appeared the most awkward:
Obama-Brown: “Mr. Obama looked relaxed while Mr. Brown fidgeted with his fingers, or clasped his hands tightly. He sat hunched as he listened to his guest.”
Obama-Blair: “Both looked self-assured. Their movements suggested an openness with each other. They both wore grins during the visit.”
Obama-Cameron: “The men, both left-handed, looked at ease in the other’s company despite it being their first meeting.”
Compared with the rock-star reception he got in Berlin, Mr. Obama’s London visit was low-key. He refused media interviews and made no public appearance except for a brief chat with journalists outside No. 10. One of the questions put to him was whether he had any advice for Mr. Brown to help him get out of his current political difficulties. Mr. Obama had no advice but, instead, offered a consolation to Mr. Brown saying that the problems he was facing came with the territory.
“You’re always more popular before you’re actually in charge of things. Once you’re responsible you’re going to make some people unhappy,” he said.
The local media complained that Mr. Obama was partisan to American journalists and allowed only two British reporters to ask questions. There was also a sense that some in his team were patronising describing Downing Street as “tatty” and “grimy.” One reportedly said that White House would never be allowed to fall into such a “state of disrepair.”
The extensive media coverage of Mr. Obama’s six-nation tour and the red-carpet reception he got wherever he went only served to highlight the power of America. Mr. Obama is, after all, only a presidential candidate but the attention he received was fit for a king. It is hard to think of any other political leader — even incumbent let alone a pretender to power — who will get this sort of attention. It is not just Mr. Obama’s charisma or genius that makes him so special but the fact that he is seen to represent American power.
*** *** ***
.....And finally, Mr. Obama had a swipe at the media which was still not able to decide whether he was a “genius” or an “idiot.”
“There have been months when I’m a genius and months when I’m an idiot if you read the newspapers [though] I’m pretty much the same guy during this process,” he said wondering what he would be called next.