The Obama-Brown Presser: How Special Special Really Is

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I have been dwelling on this for about a month: Which is more intimate, a “special partnership” or a “special relationship”? It is not an idle question, since it lies at the heart of the imaginary split that the Obama administration has caused between Britain and the United States. For years, both sides called the bond a “special relationship.” A few weeks back, however, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs made the earth-shattering decision to call the ties a “special partnership” and the old kingdom got upset. (It “sounded rather non-committal–as if America were signalling that, henceforth, it wanted to be free to date other countries as well,” the liberal Guardian newspaper has continued to grouse.) Never mind that most people I know have far more “relationships” than “partnerships,” suggesting the latter is more intimate than the former. The controversy continued. Until, today, let us all hope. President Obama met Wednesday morning in London with Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Whatever you want to call it, there is no doubt: The joint press conference was a love fest.

It all began with the opening statements. At the start, Brown welcomed Obama by announcing a renewal of the “special relationship.” Then he veered towards the diplomatic equivalent of poetry. It was not an “alliance of convenience” but a “partnership of purpose.” (Take that haters! It’s can be both a partnership and a relationship!) Obama quickly followed, filling out the sonnet with a repitition of the phrase “special relationship.” It was more than an “alliance of interests,” he continued. “It’s a kinship of ideals.” (Oooh kinship! Sort of like a familiar partnering relationship!)

And all that was just the beginning. A few minutes later, Obama went on at length about his affection for the British people, he spoke of “love” for the Queen, and said “we owe so much to England.” He said there was an “extraordinary affinity and kinship” between the two people. (Twice! Kinship!) Obama said he had talked about dinosours with Brown’s kids. Brown said he had talked about treadmills with the ultra-fit Obama. The two men could have held hands and it would not have seemed odd. On the bus ride away from the event, the travelling press joked about the ways in which the gratuitous expressions of affection might yet be spun as a dismissal. (Brown did mistakenly call Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner the “Secretary of State” at one point. Disrespect? Anyone?) I don’t put it beyond the pundits, especially the ultra-sensitive British press. But don’t believe it. These two countries are tight. Like partners. Or relations. Or kin. Or whatever.