The Messiah finds his time warp
Barack Obama doesn’t move Americans as he once did. The eloquence once thought cast in gold has been revealed as sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. But he found comfort in a warm, wet time warp in London. You couldn’t blame him if he had sent Michelle on to Paris alone, with just her Secret Service bodyguards.
The reception in Westminster Hall recalled the sudsy rhetoric of happier times. He applied payback for his daddy’s mistreatment at the hands of colonial masters in Kenya and for his mother’s pious angst in Kansas. He won his greatest applause from the Parliament when he observed that “it’s possible for the sons and daughters of former colonies to sit as members of Parliament and for the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British army to stand before you as the president of the United States.”
Mr. Obama might have thought he was rubbing a little salt into the wounds of Englishmen, but the right honorable members of Parliament loved it, taking it as an unexpected salute to the memory of the empire on which the sun never set (until it did). Whatever, it was appreciated as a moment when unexpected personal connection — a flash of warmth from the captain of cool — momentarily interrupted a parade of platitudes. Even the president’s endorsement of “the special relationship,” which a year ago he professed to not have heard much about, did not impress some morning-after reviewers.
“The presidential text,” the London Daily Telegraph observed, “sounded as if it had been worked on so hard and conscientiously by a vast team of helpers that it had lost all savor, and had been reduced to a series of orotund banalities of the sort which can be heard at every tedious Anglo-American conference: ‘Profound challenges stretch out before us [. . . ] the time of our leadership is now [. . . ]. Our alliance must remain indispensable.’ ”
The president’s bromides, meant to warm the occasion, could teach him to be wary of historical allusions when he attempts to match his Harvard education against learning from Oxford, Cambridge and the University of East Anglia. Everything between Britain and the United States has been “smooth sailing,” the president said, “ever since 1812,” when the redcoats took a burning brand to Dolley Madison’s White House. This assertion invited critics to recall a few occasions of rough sailing since then, such as the British attempt to retain the Suez Canal in 1956 over the obstructions of the Eisenhower administration — when even the French wanted to help.
The history and lore of America and the exploits of American heroes once familiar to every schoolboy have never much interested Mr. Obama, who received his early education, where the longest-lasting cultural impressions are formed, in a Muslim school in Indonesia. He gives the impression of being above it all, an impression he carefully cultivates. The light touch lies beyond his learning, but he tried in London with the hint of a jest he could but wouldn’t tell, something about the queen, the pope and Nelson Mandela, who had preceded him at the lectern in Westminister Hall. The joke, of a kind familiar to American barflies, was in the way of, “So these three celebrities walk into a bar . . .” But he knew you have to be careful, even abroad, making jokes about the queen, the pope, and a black guy.
On the other hand, the rapture that didn’t happen with the end of the world a week ago was alive and well in Westminster Hall, where the right honorable members of Parliament were transported to unholy bliss just to get near Mr. Obama, reaching to catch falling stardust to sprinkle on themselves. “I was only surprised that [the right honorable members] hadn’t produced the halt and the lame to be cured,” observed Simon Hoggart in the very liberal London Guardian. “As he moved up spontaneous applause would break out. He was being clapped just for being there, for simply existing. Everyone he encountered had that [star-struck] smile, like a very happy corpse, common to people meeting a superstar.”
Such mindless enthusiasm for a president once thought to be the Messiah, who could walk on water; cure cancer, AIDS and athlete’s foot; and raise the dead if he wanted to, is found now mostly in star-struck faculty lounges. Most Americans, mugged by reality on the mean streets of the world outside the academic cocoon, have outgrown the fantasy. One day soon our English cousins will feel foolish, too.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.