Hemingway is long gone and so are Gertrude Stein and her friend Alice, but Woody Allen showed in his recent movie that nostalgia is stupid – or at least it makes you injudicious. That Paris – Hemingway’s Moveable Feast – is long gone, and the Paris of the fifties, Miles Davis chatting with Sartre on Rue St-Benoit, is long gone too. There’s now just a modern city with a lot of old stuff – moody and romantic and saturated with history and glorious, and gritty too. It’s a fine place, and for many years a place to go each December for a few weeks, to be all alone somewhere else, as that’s the point of all travel. You watch, you get a feel for the place, you get a sense of the rhythm of things, you get a feel for how things are done (and what is just not done) – and you slip into another world. And no, the French aren’t rude, or they aren’t any ruder than anyone else – they’re just formal and reserved. You quickly learn how to address people no matter what the setting – Monsieur or Madame as the case may be – and learn what is considered intrusive. And no, they don’t hate Americans. Actually, they rather like Americans, when they think of them at all, which they don’t do much. They have their own lives, which aren’t about us at all. Work all that out – basically, don’t be a jerk – and you’ll do just fine. Gertrude Stein said America was her country and Paris was her hometown – and she was born in Pittsburgh. That makes those of us from Pittsburgh smile.
Of course things in London, even if the food is a disappointment after Paris, is easier, as they speak English. All you have to do is get used to the odd terms for what you call something else, but that’s a minor matter. And there’s a lot of cultural residue we share with the Brits, as we’ve been in a push-pull relationship with them since we broke from them in the eighteenth century and two hundred years later decided they were our best friends. Hell, we love the Queen more than they do. And they can be as brash and rude as we are – so there’s less to learn and less need to be careful and precise. Everyone loves the old Monty Python stuff, even if the French never really got any of it.
But you still don’t want to be a jerk. There’s still a need to get a feel for the place and how things are done, which is basic diplomacy, or perhaps simple courtesy. You don’t insult people, and on the political level that’s statesmanship, a way to promote nation-to-nation friendship. You get in their groove, which is how you reassure allies and foil adversaries.
Mitt Romney has said that Barack Obama is stunningly bad at this – he has often said he gives Obama an F on all aspects of Obama’s foreign policy, saying Obama makes nice with the wrong people and insults our allies, like Israel. And as for the Brits, one of Romney’s advisors said that Obama just doesn’t appreciate the “Anglo-Saxon heritage” we share with the Brits. Hey, Obama isn’t Anglo-Saxon at all – just look at him!
Stephen Colbert had a lot of fun with that – but Romney later said he didn’t even know who that advisor was, so he himself wasn’t implying anything at all. Yes, it’s hard to get good help these days. And by then Romney was in London for the opening of the London Olympics, and then off to Israel, then Poland, not a vacation trip but his first foray in international diplomacy. The idea was that he would show Obama, and the world, and American voters, how these things are done. He would charm our allies, and reassure them, and prove he should be president starting next January.
That was a fine idea, and as everyone saw, the London visit was a disaster:
The presumed Republican nominee spent Thursday in a round of meetings with current and former British leaders, but he was met with questions from both the British and American press about his comment Thursday night to “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams that some of the early Olympic reports had been “disconcerting.”
“The stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging,” Mr. Romney told Williams.
And he probably shouldn’t have said that maybe the city was ready for the games, and the athletes were certainly ready, but the people might not be ready. You know how people are, after all.
The very conservative (Tory) Daily Telegraph broke with him:
Mitt Romney is perhaps the only politician who could start a trip that was supposed to be a charm offensive by being utterly devoid of charm and mildly offensive… His comments to NBC, particularly his doubts about Britons’ ability to celebrate the games, showed how poorly he understands the land of his forefathers.
If he possessed a smidgeon of insight into the British psyche he would have known that despite all the pre-match whingeing and the carping, on the night we will celebrate the games with all the gusto and fervor they deserve. We moan, and then we smile; that is just our way.
There really is a need to get a feel for the place and how things are done. The headline of the piece – “If Mitt Romney doesn’t like us, we shouldn’t care.”
Prime Minister Cameron then offered this:
“In terms of people coming together, the torch relay demonstrated that this is not a London Games, this is not an England Games but this is a United Kingdom Games. We’ll show the world we’ve not only come together as a United Kingdom but are extremely good at welcoming people from across the world.” Cameron said he was going to make this point to Romney when he met him later on Thursday.
And he added this:
“Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.”
The folks in Salt Lake City were not pleased, but Romney spent the day walking back his comments, and Andrew Sullivan comments:
There is a fantastic, hilarious, thigh-slapping irony in Mitt Romney’s foreign tour. It’s supposed to be about reaffirming America’s traditional relationships with the traditional allies. It was going to be a meeting of conservative minds between Cameron and Romney. It was going to revive the old aura of the Atlantic alliance – the moment when the Queen’s band played the Star Spangled Banner after 9/11 and the US out-pouring of support on 7/7. And, of course, it has turned into a riotously public demonstration of the complete opposite. …
All in all: hilarious so far. But one serious point: the Brits bitch and moan about everything all the time. They are characterologically piss-takers and doom-mongers, fearing (and predicting) national embarrassment always around the corner. But if a non-Brit joins in the doom chorus, the ranks will close, and the anger will be intense. They expect that kind of sneer from the French, not from an American. And now the Brits have a real asshole to prove wrong: the guy who’s running to be president of the US.
This did not go well and there’s another pesky matter:
On Wednesday the prime minister hosted a reception for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community at 10 Downing in which he renewed his commitment to legal same sex civil marriage. “I think marriage is a great institution – I think it helps people to commit, it helps people to say that they’re going to care and love for another person,” Cameron said, according to text of his remarks on his official website. “It helps people to put aside their selfish interests and think of the union that they’re forming. It’s something I feel passionately about and I think if it’s good enough for straight people like me, it’s good enough for everybody and that’s why we should have gay marriage and we will legislate for it.”
And of course everyone was then quoting from Romney’s book, No Apology:
England is just a small island. Its roads and houses are small. With few exceptions, it doesn’t make things that people in the rest of the world want to buy. And if it hadn’t been separated from the continent by water, it almost certainly would have been lost to Hitler’s ambitions. Yet only two lifetimes ago, Britain ruled the largest and wealthiest empire in the history of humankind. Britain controlled a quarter of the earth’s land and a quarter of the earth’s population.
They’re such losers, you see. Oops. The conservative media on this side of the pond was silent about all this. There was nothing in the National Review or Weekly Standard, but there was Dan Riehl:
Get over it, Britain. You’re a second rate, semi-degenerate nation still on the way down because you went too far to the left too long ago for anyone to care about. Don’t expect us to wring our hands over what you losers did. We’re too busy fighting to make sure it doesn’t happen here.
I really give a flip about what David Cameron thinks. Yawn … just be glad we continue to allow you to think you’re actually in the game on most things. Now, get out of our face and try to not screw up the Olympics more than you have already.
Mostly a bunch of feckless wankers if you ask me. Put a Gold Medal on that and aim it at the Queen’s arse.
No such nation exists. The nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all nations under the United Kingdom (since 1800). It’s always a good idea when visiting a country to call it by its rightful name.
And one of Sullivan’s readers sums things up nicely:
My view is that the British will first of all think of Romney as showing very poor manners. He’s a visitor – and a private citizen at that. He’s our guest in London, and as you will know from your British childhood, if you’re a guest, you have responsibilities. The transatlantic politics geek in me also thinks this may play appallingly with exactly the US voters Romney needs.
My imagination of an independent or swing voter is someone suspicious of government, deeply wedded to American exceptionalism and firmly of the belief (for reasons varying from the war to Downton Abbey to the Beatles and the Stones and many other shared cultural and political experiences) that while the British don’t run US policy, they are always, always deserving of complete respect and invariably worth agreeing with. This is exactly Obama’s attitude to the Brits – and he can be trusted to be a polite, dignified guest.
That’s one way of looking at it, but Romney seems to think that there are more important people:
Mitt Romney is also facing criticism for taking money from individuals implicated in an ongoing banking scandal. Barclays executives have donated over $1 million to Romney’s campaign, according to the Guardian, and many are expected to be in attendance at Thursday’s fundraiser, raising eyebrows on both sides of the pond.
Former Barclays CEO Bob Diamond bowed out as host of Romney’s fundraiser after resigning in the wake of a scandal in which major banks colluded to artificially lower the London interbank offered rate (LIBOR), the rate at which banks loan to one another. Diamond has donated $2,500 to the Romney campaign.
Eighty-two other Barclays employees have donated to Romney, according to the Associated Press. Patrick Durkin, Barclays’ chief lobbyist in D.C., is a co-host and has raised more than $1 million for Romney.
And there’s this:
Last week, 11 members of the British Parliament signed a letter citing the upcoming fundraiser and called on Barclays executives to “cease fundraising for political candidates immediately and to concentrate entirely on repairing confidence and trust in the banking system instead.”
The Romney campaign decided not to comment, and, as the Guardian reports, the other matters speak for themselves:
On to a meeting with the leader of the opposition Labour party, Ed Miliband – a man often criticized for being awkward and lacking a common touch. They should have got on famously. But Romney seemed to forget Miliband’s name. “Like you, Mr Leader, I look forward to our conversations this morning,” Romney said.
But he reeled it right back in, British-style, with some spontaneous patter about the weather. (“Could not be better. Fortunately the sunshine is out. The warmth is here.”) And Miliband’s team smoothed it over, recognising that American politicians often refer to each other by their titles.
That was awkward, as was this:
The existence of MI6, the international arm of the British secret service, was not officially acknowledged until 1994, 82 years after it was established. But the organisation is still shrouded in secrecy, and its operations – and the diary schedule of its chief – are rarely acknowledged. But here comes Romney, in fully open mode: “I appreciated the insights and perspectives of the leaders of the government here and the opposition here as well as the head of MI6”.
Got any pics, Mitt?
There are things one just doesn’t discuss. Pay attention! And consider London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, speaking to a crowd of tens of thousands at an Olympic torch ceremony in Hyde Park:
The Geiger counter of Olympo-mania is going to go zoink! Off the scale! People are coming from around the world, and they’re seeing us, and they’re seeing the greatest country on Earth, aren’t they? There are some people who are coming from around the world who don’t yet know about all the preparations we’ve done to get London ready in the last seven years. I hear there’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we’re ready. Are we ready?
The crowd roared that they WERE ready. Yes we can!
Romney was having a bad day, and people noticed:
Among the people watching Mitt Romney’s European misadventures with interest on Thursday was President Obama’s top campaign strategist, David Axelrod. “It’s been quite amazing so far,” Axelrod remarked Thursday. “I’m almost speechless. That doesn’t happen too often.”…
“It’s a little bewildering why he made this trip,” Axelrod said. “He says the whole election is about the economy and then he sets out for Europe and the Middle East. So I assume he wanted to show his mastery in foreign policy and his diplomatic chops. The early returns are not encouraging.”
That’s twisting the knife, but something is going on here, and Salon’s Joan Walsh sees a pattern:
I’ve called Romney “gaffe-tastic” before, but I found myself shocked by his tone-deaf, condescending remarks in London. I mean, we expect it in this country. Romney’s Olympics gaffe made me think about when, campaigning in Pittsburgh, the candidate insulted a local bakery by disdaining its baked goods. “I’m not sure about these cookies. They don’t look like you made them,” Romney said to the woman next to him. “No, no. They came from the local 7/11 bakery, or whatever.” In fact they came from the local Bethel Bakery, whose owner later told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell he was offended by Romney’s remarks.
Or when he visited the Daytona Raceway in Florida during a rainstorm and insulted fans wearing plastic ponchos. “I like those fancy raincoats you bought,” he said. “Really sprung for the big bucks.” Bill O’Reilly later suggested Romney’s comment sounded “elitist,” to which Romney replied he’d just wanted to wear a “garbage bag,” too. And while we’re on the NASCAR topic: Romney was also asked if he followed the sport. “Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans, but I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners,” Romney responded.
Or how about the time he talked to unemployed voters while campaigning in Florida last year, and told them, “I should tell my story. I’m also unemployed.” (Romney’s estimated tax returns showed his net worth at nearly $250 billion in 2011.) Or the other time he commiserated with the unemployed and economically insecure by saying, “There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.”
Then there’s that bizarre interlude with black voters in Jacksonville, Fla., during the 2008 campaign, where he broke out into “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and remarked on a child’s necklace with “bling, bling, baby!” (Maybe that one doesn’t count, because it’s hard to argue Romney was sincerely courting black voters.)
You can find these kinds of baffling, insulting gaffes going all the way back to his first Senate run, when he tried to charm a woman voter in Waltham, Mass., who was reluctant to shake his hand. “I know – you haven’t got your makeup on yet, right?” he told her, awkwardly adding, “You do, you do.”
The man is a walking disaster, and Walsh thinks she knows why:
What accounts for Romney’s capacity to consistently insult even those he’s trying to court? I’d argue it’s his fantastic sense of entitlement, with its accompanying inability to feel empathy for the less fortunate. It may or may not be connected to his pranking/bullying impulse, which showed itself in his school days when he forcefully cut the hair of a gay classmate, led a sight-impaired teacher into a closed door, or intimidated friends by impersonating a state trooper. Romney clearly lacks the ability to put himself in the shoes of others (except other wealthy business owners).
That’s a bad trait on the campaign trail, but when it extends to the leaders of other sovereign nations, it’s a terrible trait in a president.
And she asks an interesting question:
Why is this race close?
Maybe, after London, it won’t be. See this Twitter item:
@jameschappers: Serious dismay in Whitehall at Romney debut. ‘Worse than Sarah Palin.’ ‘Total car crash’. Two of the kinder verdicts #romneyshambles
He’s worse than Sarah Palin? That’s the word at Whitehall, from our closest ally.
Why is this race close? After all, diplomacy is like travel – you watch, you get a feel for the place, you get a sense of the rhythm of things, you get a feel for how things are done (and what is just not done) – and you then confirm whatever “special relationship” you can. Romney said Obama was terrible at such things. He would show Obama how it’s done. Oops. Maybe the election won’t be close after all.