Politics, Hand to Hand

Washington, D.C.

7 July 2017

Are you psychologically able to cast your mind back to the days when Barack Obama assumed office in 2009? If so, you may remember a big kerfuffle. I refer to the 25 DVDs he gave to then Prime Minister Gordon Brown. This counted as an outrage among the Brits.

The exchange of diplomatic gifts has been a hallowed tradition since the Renaissance, when rulers exchanged rare and marvellous curiosities. Obama’s present, which smacked of last-minute desperation, was made all the worse by Brown’s thoughtful choice, “a pen-holder crafted from the timbers of the 19th-century British warship HMS President”. All the moment lacked was the cast of Veep to cringe in the background.

Fast forward to January 2017 and Theresa May’s US visit. The occasion offered her plenty to worry about, given Donald Trump’s unpredictability and the UK’s torturous path toward Brexit. The bad news was that Trump announced his Muslim ban just hours after she left, making May look foolish and, worse, in league with a malevolent racist. The good news was that the gift exchange went just fine.

May, in recognition of Trump’s heritage, gave him a traditional Scottish quaich – a two-handled vessel that represents friendship, passed hand to hand while drinking. (He’s a teetotaler, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone.) Trump, with his customary imperviousness to irony, gave May a handprinted excerpt from Lincoln’s second inaugural address – “With malice toward none, with charity for all” – along with the 1865 issue of Harper’s that covered the speech. Nice, right?

Even Trump’s allies concede that politesse is not his long suit. Which raises an obvious question: how come he got the prezzies right, particularly when Obama got them so badly wrong? I think there’s an equally obvious answer. Diplomatic gifts are just symbols, of course, and it would be wrong to read too much into them. But symbolism is where Trump excels. That’s how he got where he is today. He’ll be a terrible president, but I’ll give him this: he would have made a brilliant Renaissance despot.

Just the man to pick out a unicorn horn.