The president, we read, is “dashing and attractive”, “quick in thought and admirably articulate . . . eager to hear both sides of a controversial issue before he reaches his own conclusion”. Not Barack Obama, though all those things have been said of him, but Jack Kennedy, the last US president with whom the British fell in love, as reported in the Times in 1960.
The comparison in coverage is illuminating, in part for the many similarities. Like Obama, Kennedy was young and good-looking and had an attractive wife who was recognised as a stylish dresser. The Kennedys also came to power during a national mood swing. Like Obama, Kennedy scored a first – in his case, the first Catholic to occupy the White House – and, like the Obamas, the Kennedys’ glamour earned them an attention that went beyond their politics. As the Times reported in June 1961, when the Kennedys arrived in Britain, crowds gathered in front of Buckingham Palace shouting, “We want Jack,” until their hero appeared on the balcony.
But if the Times allowed itself some coy observations on Kennedy’s “exuberant smile” and his “appeal to the women’s vote”, its coverage remained sedate. In those distant days before Andy Warhol predicted that everyone in the world would be famous for 15 minutes, before the fetid churn of celeb culture infected the world of politics, Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis still took precedence over the assessment of his personal charms or his wife’s shopping habits. Nothing the Times wrote about Kennedy had the breathless quality of its description of today’s president: “Obama steps on to the stage, rangy, handsome and composed, a thin dark knight come to reclaim Camelot . . .”
Britain’s Obamania is shaped in a different context. The roots of his popularity are not hard to find. After eight years of highly ideologised and dangerous American nationalism, the sharp rupture with the Bush years is cause for celebration. The arrival of a president who can speak in complete sentences and who promises a return to reason, negotiation and moderation, and of a black man who embodies redemption for an unhappy America that many had come to loathe and fear, was bound to lift the spirits. That America, grown disillusioned and ashamed of the Bush years, has the chance to make a fresh start can only be a relief. Hope is back in fashion.
In this country, where Obamania broke out as a fully fledged fever, Obama offered the chance to hold on to the illusion that Britain is the US’s best friend, without the stigma that serving as handmaiden to the old regime brought. Perhaps our nearly bankrupt country, scarred and humiliated by Tony Blair’s love affair with George W Bush, could share in America’s rejuvenation and the promise of redemption-by-association. For Labour, it might offer a facelift to an ageing government; for the Tories, a boost by proxy to the idea that it was time for a new and younger face at the top. To a population without much to cheer in sport, with empty wallets and a future that promised little but ever greater indebtedness, Obama held out a rare opportunity to believe in political leadership and the hope that someone could show the way out of the nightmare.
How else to understand the bipartisan gush – untrammelled, it seems, by political reservations – which greeted Obama’s one visit here last year and threatened to break out again as the Obamas arrived on 31 March for Gordon Brown’s G20 summit? Even the Queen appeared to want to be in on the show, inviting the Obamas for a meeting normally reserved for leaders explicitly making state visits. Look, they seemed to be saying, we are putting out the best china. Now you must surely love us.
Yet these are fragile hopes, and their vulnerability showed in the mood swings of the British press. After the Blair years, when Britain embroiled itself in the worst the US can do, politically and economically, there lingers the queasy suspicion that we could be left with the stigma of the Bush legacy while the US emerges from its ritual political cleansing in a new and lovable form. Being the handmaiden of one president has tarnished our sense of self. Is adoring the new one really enough to bring the shine back?
For us, there is no easy redemption by proxy and there are painful limits to the possibilities of vicarious rejuvenation. There has been no political catharsis in the UK and none is in prospect. The electorate may want a change, but the best that is on offer is a change of personalities. Who can pretend that the Tories represent a repudiation of Labour’s military adventurism or financial recklessness, when the traces of their opposition to the most discredited of Labour’s policies are so slight? A change of regime here would merely underline the lack of rupture, a demoralising continuity instead of a fresh start.
Britain’s crush on Obama threatens to exacerbate this malaise. The press veers unsteadily between searching for hints that Obama thinks we are special and the fear that he does not. When Gordon Brown became the first head of government to get through the new administration’s door, right-wing commentators did not know what to do first – cheer this reassuring token of Britain’s importance or sneer at the Prime Minister for seeking it.
When the visit took place, the confusion only deepened. Brown was never going to photograph well standing next to Obama, and British national pride at the meeting was haunted by the fear that the contrast between the two men would be a national humiliation. In an exercise in self-flagellation that would have been comic, were it not so mortifying, the meeting was dissected less for its content than for the quality of its tailoring and body language. Did the Prime Minister cross his legs? What did he do with his hands? Was his shirt up to snuff? The Times reported excitedly that “Mr Obama had helpfully reinforced the impression of togetherness by dressing in almost identical fashion to the Prime Minister: dark-blue suit, white shirt, black shoes, blue tie”. Was a 22-minute question-and-answer session for the British media in the Oval Office as good as the twin-flag press conference they had been promised?
When it came to Brown’s address to Congress, the Times was similarly torn between fear and hope as it nervously assessed the Prime Minister’s chances of matching up to the “world’s best orator”. Obama had addressed both houses of Congress “faultlessly, stirringly, pointedly and passionately”. In case Brown let us all down, they advised that “it would be a mistake to reach for rhetorical power in imitation”.
It was over Presentgate, however, that the British commentators really became unhinged, in a collective reaction that brought to mind a dowdy schoolgirl who fears that the most popular girl in the class despises her, but who cannot resist dreaming of being the star’s best friend. Every head of state or government builds up an embarrassing collection of ritual gifts for which no earthly use can be found. In the entrance hall of Windsor Castle, for instance, there sits an astonishingly kitsch metal grasshopper that opens to reveal a cocktail cabinet. It was a gift from a French president to Her Hapless Majesty, who, unaccountably, failed to make space for it in the state apartments.
Such offerings, however hideous or inappropriate, rarely threaten to precipitate a national nervous breakdown, but the British press outrage when the Obamas’ personal gifts to the Browns on that highly charged Washington visit were judged inferior narrowly missed assuming the status of a diplomatic incident. The DVD
collection from Barack to Gordon was “about as exciting as a pair of socks”, according to the Daily Mail, and the Times found it necessary to complain that Michelle Obama’s present of toy helicopters to the Brown sons was “solipsistic” and “inherently dismissive”. For the Daily Mail, it was a chance to humiliate Brown, with the nation’s dignity as collateral damage. The Daily Telegraph, not noted for its unconditional support of the Prime Minister, and which earlier had praised Obama’s “effortless eloquence and, more important, pitch-perfect judgement”, now complained that “President Obama has been rudeness personified towards Britain” and that “his handling of the visit of the Prime Minister to Washington was appalling”.
The imagined insults are the stigmata of the martyred also-ran who still imagines walking with champions, but they are also the product of the cultural shift that has taken place since Londoners gathered to cheer Jack Kennedy’s appearance in 1961. Today’s celebrity industry, with its insatiable appetite for manufactured scandal and synthetic novelty, can make fortunes for those who know how to exact the rent. But it has metastasised so far beyond the gossip columns that it has infected and trivialised the national conversation.
After two decades of conditioning by celebrity culture, we seem ready to live our national hopes and fears through the image of a stranger. Whatever the ultimate outcome of the G20 summit, the Gordon-loves-Barack/Barack-snubs-Gordon game will go on.
Isabel Hilton is editor of Chinadialogue.net