A. A. GILL writes from LONDON
IT’S invariably the little things, the unconsidered, off the cuff, in passing, unrehearsed things that snag our attention, and seem to be telling of the bigger things. In the case of Barack Obama’s first visit to London and the Group of 20 conference to save the endangered habitat of bankers and real estate salesmen, it was the handshake with the bobby that seemed to be emblematic. In a forest of waving palms, this handshake meant more.
As the president stepped up to 10 Downing Street, he leant over, made eye contact, said something courteous, and shook the hand of the police officer standing guard. There’s always a police officer there; he is a tourist logo in his ridiculous helmet. He tells you that this is London, and the late 19th century. No one has ever shaken the hand of the policeman before, and like everyone else who has his palm touched by Barack Obama, he was visibly transported and briefly forgot himself. He offered the hand to Gordon Brown, the prime minister, who was scuttling behind.
It was ignored. He was left empty-handed. It isn’t that Mr. Brown snubbed the police officer; he just didn’t see him. To a British politician, a police officer is as invisible as the railings.
But the rest of us noticed. Because in this country that still feels the class system like a phantom limb, being overtly kind to servants is the very height of manners, the mark of true nobility. Being nice to the staff is second only to being nice to dogs as a pinnacle of civilization. Remember: a butler’s not just for Christmas. Apparently, the Obamas searched every cupboard and closet in Downing Street to personally thank all the servants for looking after them. That’s classlessly classy.
You often wonder what visiting dignitaries make of your country; American presidents must think that the whole world is in a constant state of riot. Wherever they go, CNN is full of angry banners, burning flags and tear gas. I went and joined the London riot. It was depressingly flabby, and half-hearted. Not so much a demonstration as a queue of arcane special pleading groups, ranging from anarchists for bicycles (who all waited politely at the traffic lights) and one-world vegans. Altogether, they looked like a collective of European street mimes.
A couple of broken windows and teeth, and that was it. The London police have discovered that the best way to neuter demonstrations is not to move everyone on, or disperse troublemakers, but hold them close, cordon them into a diminishing space for hours and hours, as a sort of arbitrary al fresco arrest. The crowd goes from righteous indignation to fury to despair, and ends up pleading. They’re all desperate to go. It’s crowd control by bladder control: effective but probably illegal.
The Obamas were likely also surprised at how black the old white colonial country is. Ethnic diversity is shamelessly and embarrassingly pushed to the front of every publicity shot. Michelle Obama went to a girls school where a gospel song was performed and where she made a surprisingly moving speech. All the world leaders’ wives are herded together in cultural outings of excruciatingly bland probity, but Mrs. Obama rose above it, and seemed to really inspire this group of young girls. It was noticed. The rest of the women grinned and clutched their handbags, apparently wondering when they could get away to Harrods.
The other thing that she rose above was Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip: Honey, we shrunk the royal family. If ever we needed a totemic image of the merits of a republic over a monarchy, this was it.
Of all the G-20 wives, Carla Bruni, a k a Mrs. Nicolas Sarkozy, was noticeably absent. With her carefully demure wardrobe and the fluttered eyes of a reformed and legitimized mistress, she was too canny to let her herself be compared to those dumpy other halves. It left one dying to see what Jackie O.-type manipulation would go down when the Obamas crossed the Channel for the NATO summit meeting.
The French are never happy coming to London; this is an ancient and comforting enmity. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France plays nicely to our patronizing stereotypes. He is a small man, a Gallic in lifts who can’t hide the puffed-up, tip-toe insecurities of his shortness. Almost as if he wanted the world to think he has Napoleon syndrome, he postured and pouted and made arbitrary demands, and drew lines in the sand.
The truth is that the French have never really got over being dumped at the altar of the “special relationship.” It should have been them. It was after all, the French who gave you the Statue of Liberty and the keys to the Bastille and who think Jerry Lewis is funny. What did the English ever give you? Muffins and a burnt White House.
The Germans, too, might have imagined a tighter partnership. In terms of ancestry, America is a far more German country than an Anglo-Saxon one, and they have the biggest economy in Europe. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Mr. Sarkozy made a joint statement that they would categorically veto any further bailouts or attempts to spend our way out of debt, and then a mere 24 hours later they were beaming and shaking hands over an extra trillion-dollar binge.
The salutary fact is that when you look at the grinning group photograph, there is only one face you want to see. This conference was about saving the world, but more important for the participants, it was about saving their political lives. Mr. Obama is the only popular politician left in the world. He would win an election in any one of the G-20 countries, and his fellow world leaders will do anything to take home a touch of that reflected popularity.
We may be in the rare position of having an American president who has a deeper mandate among people who could never vote for him than with those who did. For the time being, he has only to offer his hand, and ask politely.
A. A. Gill is a contributing writer for Vanity Fair and The Sunday Times of London.