Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Monday, June 02, 2003  

Greeting the Vassals

The Times has an article today on the body language of the President as he interacted with European leaders.

"Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, who supported Mr. Bush on Iraq, got a big neck squeeze. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, who in late May spent two hours lounging around the pool with Mr. Bush at his Texas ranch (and who supported him on Iraq), got an arm around the back. Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, the president's closest ally on Iraq, got a swinging handshake, as if he were one of Mr. Bush's Yale fraternity brothers. . . .

"So on Sunday in this sleepy, not terribly fashionable resort town of spas, a big casino and the natural spring water bearing its name, nobody missed the fact that Mr. Bush's friends got the Texas treatment, and that Mr. Chirac, in his first face-to-face encounter with the American president since Iraq, got something less."

This isn't particularly surprising--the President has a number of different modes ("personas" would be too pointed), and it's not surprising he performed correspondingly. On Air Force One, a reporter asked (lightly, one imagines) if the President would kiss both of Chirac's cheeks, as is customary in France.

"That's only if you are French, I think," the official replied. "We don't do that in the United States. In Texas they don't do that."

It was a throwaway line, a bit of levity during tense times. But it's instructive: even abroad, the President expects people to conform to Texan standards. It recalls--to me, anyway--a regal procession. The king has arrived, and the vassals are expected to perform the proper rituals. Never mind that he's in France--Chirac should greet him in the appropriate Texan fashion.

I'm reminded of the Queen's visit to Canada last fall, when she attended a hockey game. Ostensibly enjoying a bit of local color, she was asked to drop the puck ceremonially. Of course, it was all for show: she dropped the puck--but only after they had laid out the red carpet for her. Afterward, she retreated to the royal box, where she watched only the first period.

George Bush has deigned to survey the kingdom, but only if wrapped in a protective cultural bubble. His meeting with Chirac seems less to build bridges than to mark territory. A man who has spent his entire life in the corridors of power, Bush knows something about subtle, symbolic gestures. He will not meet people as equals unless they've already ceded power to him, and they they get playful, paternal pats on the back. So it is when the emperor tours. He's there to make sure things are running smoothly--to mete out praise or reign in rebellion. But not, in the end, to cooperate. Like kissing someone's cheek, that's not the business of a king.

posted by Jeff | 8:58 AM |
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