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Al Eisele

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Recalling My Own Romney Gaffe in London

Posted: 08/05/2012 8:56 pm

As a dyed-in-the-wool yellow dog Democrat, it's no secret I'm not a big fan of Mitt Romney.

But the fact is he stands a fair chance of winning the presidency, even though he campaigns, as someone said, like a man falling out of a tree, which makes it easy to overlook my disappointment with President Obama, who seems to view the White House as a place for on-the-job training without saying what he'd do differently in a second term.

Nevertheless, I sympathize with Romney over the rough treatment he got during his recent visit to London for expressing doubts about our British cousins' ability to pull off a successful Olympics, who so far, at least, have proven him wrong.

That's because I suffered through an almost identical experience in January 1977, the week after President Carter's inauguration. It was part of my baptism of fire as Vice President Mondale's press secretary that included a sound whipping in the British tabloids, a personal complaint about me to the American ambassador by Prime Minister James "Sunny" Callaghan, and even a disapproving comment from President Carter.

It all stemmed from an elegant state dinner at Number 10 Downing Street that Callaghan hosted for Mondale as he finished the European leg of his first foreign trip as vice president before leaving for Tokyo. The purpose of the trip was to reassure our closest allies that Carter would work closely with them in shaping U.S. foreign policy.

The dinner was indeed a grand affair, with flowery speeches of good will and British-American shared values as we dined on beef Wellington and drank first growth Bordeaux wines, the latter of which proved my downfall since Callaghan and his Labor Party were under fire at a time of bleak austerity and labor unrest in Great Britain.

Even though I had been forewarned by Robert Manning, a top State Department official, to be wary of the voracious British press, and was perhaps overly confident after briefing reporters in Rome, Berlin, Paris and other European capitals without incident, I gave a too-detailed account of the dinner at a press briefing afterwards and foolishly remarked that the British economy couldn't be in such bad shape if the Prime Minister could serve such fine French wines.

With that, we boarded Air Force Two for the ten-hour flight to Tokyo, and when we arrived, bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, at the Okura Hotel, I was summoned to the vice president's suite, where I found him unable to sleep and watching Bugs Bunny cartoons on Japanese TV.

I was mortified when he informed me that Anne Armstrong, the U.S. ambassador to the UK, had called to say that an outraged Callahan had complained to her about my remarks, which the British tabloids gleefully headlined. I couldn't locate copies of the tabloids I later collected -- maybe I destroyed them our of sheer embarrassment -- but they definitely justified Callahan's complaint.

Anyway, after I helped Mondale and his foreign policy aide Denis Clift craft an apologetic statement trying to repair the damage I'd done to U.S.-British relations, I was more careful while briefing the Japanese press after our state dinner in Tokyo. I refrained from commenting on the fact that we were greeted by the strains of "Home on the Range" when we arrived.

Mondale was gracious about my diplomatic faux pas, probably chalking it up to inexperience, although I took a lot of ribbing from my colleagues and the American reporters accompanying us as we headed home, and I tried to put the embarrassing flap behind me.

That is, until Mondale's chief of staff Dick Moe, who reminded me that my foreign policy failure had not gone unnoticed in the White House. "Who's this Ei-zel?" Carter asked Moe at a senior staff meeting the morning after our London visit, "and why is he saying the things he's saying?"

Fortunately, that was the last I heard of it as Carter had more pressing problems to deal with. But the fallout from my intemperate remarks did not help Callaghan, whose Labor Party was defeated in 1979 and he was replaced by the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher.

Callaghan, who died in March 2005, one day before his 93rd birthday, made one of his final public appearances in April 2002 when he joined then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and three other former prime ministers at Buckingham Palace for dinner with Queen Elizabeth during her Golden Jubilee celebration.

I hope they served beef Wellington and some first growth Bordeaux wines.

 
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