Wednesday, December 9, 2009
The latest issue of the New Yorker had a cartoon that showed President Obama bowing to Santa Claus. The cartoon seemed to accomplish a subtle reevaluation of Obama's previous bows to Japanese and Saudi reigning monarchs. It showed Obama not as a craven appeaser, but as laughably clueless about presidential protocol. It reminded me of Groucho Marx in "Duck Soup" who came late to a diplomatic reception and tried to slip unobtrusively next to a line of trumpeters until he realised that they were there to greet him.
Obama's right wing critics have accused him of being a stealth Marxist. the latest news from Norway is that the Norwegians have a nagging suspicion that Obama is not a Marxist Leninist but a Groucho Marxist in matters of protocol. The London based Guardian newspaper reports as follows.
"Barack Obama's trip to Oslo to pick up his Nobel peace award is in danger of being overshadowed by a row over the cancellation of a series of events normally attended by the prizewinner. Norwegians are incensed over what they view as his shabby response to the prize by cutting short his visit. The White House has cancelled many of the events peace prize laureates traditionally submit to, including a dinner with the Norwegian Nobel committee, a press conference, a television interview, appearances at a children's event promoting peace and a music concert, as well as a visit to an exhibition in his honour at the Nobel peace centre. He has also turned down a lunch invitation from the King of Norway. According to a poll published by the daily tabloid VG, 44% of Norwegians believe it was rude of Obama to cancel his scheduled lunch with King Harald, with only 34% saying they believe it was acceptable."
There are a multitude of local customs that a head of state must master in dealing with foreign countries. It is most surprising that President Obama does not have a protocol office briefing him before he goes abroad or meets with a foreign head of state. I always thought that every President had access to an office of protocol.
Lest one think that etiquette is a superficial topic, it should be noted that discussions of custom and social niceties often involve excursions into history and psychology. They are a very good starting point for the study of America's allies and adversaries.
Aside from bowing inappropriately to the Saudi King and the Japanese Emperor, there was Obama's gift to Gordon Brown of video cassettes that would not even play in a British DVD player. Now we have Obama going to Norway to receive his dubious Nobel prize and refusing to meet with the King of Norway.
Obama really needs to reach out to someone who can brief him in these matters. A new President steps onto a stage that has been set long before his arrival. Far from being seen as a new face with a fresh perspective, Obama is being seen increasingly as a man who is running roughshod over local sensibilities and customs.
Despite being far to the left of the United States, Norway is deeply proud of its traditions, of its fusion of democratic values with the presence of a royal family. Had America not had a revolution, we might have evolved in a similar direction.
There is a time to stand tall, and a time to show deference to local customs. If our President is fumbling with social niceties, there are other things he is probably overlooking as well.
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