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Christina Patterson

Christina Patterson

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The Real Special Relationship: Obama and the Queen

Posted: 05/25/11 01:00 PM ET

"Ours," said two middle-aged men yesterday, "is not just a special relationship. It is," they said, "an essential relationship." To be honest, I'm not sure how much anyone cares. Does it matter if it's special? Or quite special? Or really special? Does it matter if it's the kind of relationship where knees go weak, or the kind where one person pats the other on the head? Do people in good relationships talk about their relationships? Isn't talking about a relationship a bit like a doomed double-page spread in Hello!?

Whoever ghost-wrote the piece by Barack Obama and David Cameron in yesterday's Times was keen to point out that the President of the world's only superpower and the Prime Minister of a medium-sized country in Europe had an awful lot in common. They both "came of age during the 1980s." They both "look at the world in a similar way." They both (he or she didn't quite say, but might have) wear nice suits and ties. One, the author of the piece didn't say, believes in fiscal stimulus, and the other believes in austerity. One believes in expanding the state. The other believes in cutting it. But you don't use joint bylined pieces in national papers during state visits to talk about your differences. You use them to cheer your hosts up.

There is a special relationship, but it isn't between Barack Obama and David Cameron. It isn't between America and Britain. It emerged in an interview on Sunday when Andrew Marr, whose eyes were shining in the way you might expect someone's eyes to shine if they were on a date with Angelina Jolie, said the word "chemistry." Suddenly, Obama's eyes were shining, too. Obama smiled. It was like the sun coming out. They were talking about Obama's "chemistry" with the Queen.

"They are," said Obama, of the Queen and her spouse, "extraordinarily gracious people." She could not, he said, "have been more charming." She is," he said, "the best of England." "We are," he said, "very proud of her."

If I'd been the Queen, I think I'd have fainted with joy. I think I might even have broken my rule about boasting on Twitter. But the Queen tends not to faint. She tends not to boast. The Queen, who yesterday welcomed Barack and Michelle Obama to Buckingham Palace, and hosted a state banquet for them, and put them up in the suite where her grandson and his new bride spent their wedding night, but with specially bomb-proof double glazing installed by the secret service, chose instead to greet them with a 41-gun salute.

They have both had quite a week. The Queen braved some of the tightest security the country has ever seen to visit, for the first time, Ireland. Obama braved some of the tightest security the country has ever seen to visit, for the first time, Ireland. The Queen went down a treat. Obama went down a treat. The Queen talked about history. Obama talked about history. The Queen, it's true, didn't drink her Guinness but, when you're a queen, apparently, you don't. When you're a queen, the Guinness, like the emerald outfit, like the bow in the Garden of Remembrance, like the visit to Croke Park, like the dress embroidered with 2,091 shamrocks, and like the crown, is just a symbol.

The Queen won over 95 percent of the population of a country that has very good reason to resent the country of which she's head of state because she was respectful and polite. She won them over, including quite a few members of Sinn Fein, because she took the trouble, at 85, to learn a few words of Gaelic, and because she said the right things at the right time, and because she made the effort, as she does almost every day of her life, to show an interest in the people she met. But she won them over, most of all, because they could see who she was. They could see that she was a dutiful, hard-working, intelligent woman who doesn't suffer fools gladly, and who smiles when she wants to, and doesn't when she doesn't. They could see, in other words, that she was the real McCoy.

Obama is, if not O'Bama, also the real McCoy. He doesn't smile when he doesn't want to. He doesn't, or at least he doesn't seem to, say things he doesn't mean. He doesn't go for big displays of emotion. (When he tried to, over the BP disaster last year, he hit a rare wrong note.) Like the Queen, he is careful and steady. Like the Queen, too, he's magnetic. He's handsome. Of course he's handsome. He's the most powerful man in the world. But he has the quality that she has, too. It has something to do with knowing who you are, and something to do with calm.

It can't be all that easy to know that when you want to make a trip to London, you have to do it with 200 secret service agents, and six doctors and several hundred aides. It can't be all that easy to have to travel in a car that's like a tank (which can withstand any form of attack except, it seems, a little ramp) and to know that you can't walk down a street unless it's lined with police. But Obama accepts this, and he doesn't let it turn him into a foot-stamping, bottom-grabbing alpha male. He understands, as the Queen does, that these are the trappings of office, and that what really matters isn't the trappings of office, but its responsibilities.

During her 58 years on the throne, the Queen has had weekly meetings with 12 British prime ministers. She has met every American president, apart from Lyndon B. Johnson, since Truman. She has visited more than 120 countries. She has been to every corner of what used to be an Empire and then became a Commonwealth. She has watched 82 territories of the former Empire make the initially joyous, sometimes difficult, and occasionally bloody, transition from colonialism to independence. This is a woman who knows about history. This is a woman who knows that change takes time.

Barack Obama also knows that change takes time. "Once the transition process is complete," he said to Andrew Marr, on the subject of Afghanistan, "you get into politics, and it's going to be messy, it's going to be difficult." When Marr asked him about the mismatch between the man who said "we can", and the man sitting in the White House now, he said this. "What I did," he said, "was project a vision of where we need to go. I was very clear on election night that this was going to be a steep climb."

It certainly is going to be a steep climb. You can't take an economy that was near collapse, and suddenly turn it into one that gives all your citizens a living wage. You can't suddenly revive industries that have died. You can't suddenly cut your gas-guzzling voters off from the black stuff that keeps the show on the road. You can't suddenly rewrite the politics of the Middle East.

But you can, if you're very, very determined, pass a bill that means that 32 million Americans who didn't have access to healthcare now do. You can stimulate the economy. You can create jobs. You can reform Wall Street. You can cut the world's stock of nuclear weapons. And you can track down, and kill, a mass murderer.

You may, however, not be able to do all that much about a revolution that's sweeping the Middle East. You may want to, but you can't bring military intervention everywhere and when you have, it hasn't always gone all that well. You may, in fact, do best to stick with what you've started, and get on with what you have to do at home.

"Most politicians," said Obama to Andrew Marr, "spend their time talking, rather than listening. That," he said, "is a habit that I try to break." I'm sure the Queen would agree. I'm sure she's also proud of him.

 

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