In the world of international diplomacy, small missteps can cause big problems. When George W. Bush gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel a quick shoulder rub—in what he thought was a friendly gesture—he was mercilessly pilloried for weeks. Hillary Clinton's embrace of Suha Arafat dogged her for years. One of the most important tests of a globe-trotting president: picking out just the right gift for your foreign counterpart. Barack Obama is learning this the hard way.
Only a few weeks on the job, Obama created a minor diplo-mess when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown came to the U.S. for a visit. Obama's historic Oval Office desk, a gift from Queen Victoria to Rutherford Hayes, is made from the timbers of the HMS Resolute. Brown proudly presented Obama with a pencil holder carved from its antislavery sister ship, the HMS Gannet. Classy! Obama lamely reciprocated with a DVD set of Hollywood movies, including "Psycho." When Brown got back home, he discovered they didn't work in his European player. "At a minimum you don't want to give offense," says a former White House official who helped orchestrate foreign visits for a previous president. "That was really phoning it in." (The official, like others quoted here, asked not to be named disparaging a sitting president.) Apparently it was a rookie mistake. According to a person close to the situation, Obama hasn't yet appointed a chief of protocol and his staffers, still unpacking, didn't realize that the State Department has an entire office dedicated to foreign visits.
Ever the quick study, Obama did a little better last week when he welcomed Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with a rare original copy of the sheet music for "The Star Spangled Banner." Classy! (Brown, clutching his worthless DVDs, must have been like, "What the …?") But before Obama starts raiding the National Archives whenever a world leader doorsteps the White House, he might take a hint from a few of his predecessors, who had a knack for picking out a little something for the man who has everything.
Tic-Tac-Toe, No Tradebacks
1963: Kennedy to Lemass
Camelot style: No surprise that John and Jackie Kennedy were excellent at picking out gifts. One of the best: the president won over Irish Prime Minister Sean Lemass when he presented the P.M. with a velvet-lined, mahogany box. Inside: a precise replica of Gen. George Washington's ceremonial sword.
1972: Nixon to Brezhnev
Drink and drive: When Richard Nixon traveled to Moscow to sign an arms treaty, Leonid Brezhnev gave him a liquor set. Through aides, the Soviet leader hinted he expected something a whole lot nicer in return: a new Cadillac El Dorado. (Communists, gotta love 'em.) Nixon handed over the keys.
1996: Clinton to Chirac
C'est merveilleux: The French president marveled at Clinton's apparent ability to speak without notes. He hadn't heard of a teleprompter. When Jacques Chirac paid a visit to Washington, Clinton gave him one.
2006: Bush to Koizumi
Stuck on you: Dubya and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi were fast friends. Bush took Koizumi, an Elvis nut, to Graceland and gave him a jukebox with the King's hits. Koizumi had another weakness: "Juicy Fruit!" he cried when he spotted a pack of the delicious gum on Marine One. Bush gave him a case.
2009: Obama to Brown
What, no popcorn? The president didn't exactly endear himself to the Brits with his box set of DVDs, something the P.M. could have gotten at his local Blockbuster. The London press called it an insult, especially since Brown took obvious care in selecting a gift. Along with the pencil holder, he gave Obama a multivolume biography of Winston Churchill.