"The Queen bent the rules of royal protocol to perfection to leave the coolest couple on the planet even more star-struck," says Clive Aslet, editor at large of Country Life in the London Daily Telegraph on 3 April, 2009. It is a fascinating comment.
"Like so many people before them," writes Mr Aslet, "the Obamas were star-struck. The President was said to have been 'excited as a schoolboy' at the prospect of meeting a woman he had only ever seen "on stamps and documentaries". And ever since the royal audience, his aides have been telling anyone who cares to listen just how much they both loved it."
Now there's a First Lady
By Clive Aslet
Daily Telegraph 3 April, 2009.
Forget the G20. One glorious moment this week proved that Britain simply doesn't need such jamborees to add – if in fact they do add – to our standing in the world. It was, of course, when the Obamas met the Queen. On one side, stood the coolest couple on the planet.
On the other, a diminutive granny, grey curls tightly permed, who looks sufficiently tall when surrounded by toddlers offering posies, but over whom Michelle Obama, despite wearing courts, towered like an Amazon. Did our American guests regard it as a duty, a chore to be endured before going back to crack jokes with Dmitry Medvedev or have a few beers with Hu Jintao? Not a bit of it. Like so many people before them, the Obamas were star-struck.
The President was said to have been "excited as a schoolboy" at the prospect of meeting a woman he had only ever seen "on stamps and documentaries". And ever since the royal audience, his aides have been telling anyone who cares to listen just how much they both loved it. One only had to see the television footage to feel the chemistry of the moment. There was Prince Philip, ducking in and out of the frame like a glove puppet, trying to find a place to stand when his position was usurped by Mrs Obama; this was Michelle's chance to be photographed next to the Queen and, by golly, she was taking it.
The Queen, too, was enjoying the occasion: on her mouth a sweet little grin, in her eyes a giggly sparkle. And when Mrs Obama – no Lizard of Oz, as Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating was dubbed when he dared to put his arm around the Queen in 1992 – committed a similar breach of protocol by placing her hand on the royal back, what was the response?
Could one believe one's eyes? A tiny gloved hand crept around the First Lady's back, the arm attached to it too short to go more than half way. Is this what psychiatrists call the disinhibition of old age? No, the Queen perfectly judged the situation. She wanted the Obamas, two emotionally explicit people, to feel among friends. She bent the rules. She got it right. We knew she would.
But despite her genuine pleasure at meeting the 44th President of the United States and his wife, one thing was clear: she wasn't enjoying the encounter half as much as them. The Obamas may be the world's biggest celebrities, but the minute they walked into Buckingham Palace they were dealing with the biggest box office draw of them all.
So when it came to the exchange of presents, one can't help thinking that rather more time was devoted to the Queen's – an iPod containing video footage of her 2007 royal visit to the States – than the heap of last Christmas's unwanted DVDs with which Gordon Brown was presented on his visit to Washington last month.
The Queen, in turn, gave the Obamas something that money cannot buy: a signed photograph of herself and Prince Philip. Everybody who meets the Queen keeps a record somewhere in the house – usually on prominent display.
In this respect, American Presidents may be human like the rest of us. Commentators who claimed Obama would feel glacial towards Britain, because of his grandfather's alleged ill-treatment by the British during the run-up to Kenyan independence, appear to have been proved wrong.
If there were any glacial feelings they would seem to have melted into one ear-to-ear grin. It was all in stark contrast to the President's press conference with Gordon Brown. True, Obama was relaxed, as he usually is. But was he really happy to be there? Hardly. Brown, on the other hand, positively basked in the presidential radiance; he looked like the schoolboy who had been given the key to the tuck shop. For all his warm words, Obama knows that it isn't worth becoming too pally with a Prime Minister who is likely to be history by the end of next year.
The Queen, however, is history in a different sense. She doesn't just embody an institution, but has eaten meals beside every world leader since the Second World War. Of course you would want to make a good impression if the person you are meeting can calibrate you on a scale that includes Winston Churchill and JFK.
There is simply no other head of state like her. The Pope may be about as old, but what was he in 1953, Coronation year? A newly qualified priest, just completing his university dissertation. By then, the Queen had already become head of the Church of England. The Queen became Queen eight years before Obama was born. Gordon Brown was two. She has been a constant in British life for longer than most of us can remember. And constant, in this case, means just that.
Change isn't in her DNA. If there are no fish knives at royal banquets, it is because Edward VII thought they were common. When the Queen refers to ''the Queen'', she means Queen Victoria, whose memory is preserved with an almost cultish veneration; there are still files in the Royal Archives that are deemed too personal to consult. The furniture at Balmoral is placed exactly as it was in its Victorian heyday.
There comes a time, however, when being old-fashioned ceases to seem fuddy-duddy; like an enormously old oak tree, its very curiousness inspires awe. Last year, the world's then chicest first lady, Carla Sarkozy, was another unlikely victim of the royal charm. After the state visit, Madame Sarkozy revealed how she had been put at ease when the Queen personally showed her to her room in Windsor Castle and, apparently, graciously ''pointed out the location of the bathroom''. How splendid. And how reassuring. For there is comfort to be drawn from our own head of state in these uncertain times. Outside, railing against global economic meltdown, protesters may have caused chaos in the City of London. But inside Buckingham Palace the mood is steady.
The Queen, after all, has known worse than this. Like others of her generation, she has lived through world war, rationing, Suez, the oil crisis, the three-day week. She personifies the conviction that we'll pull through. She may even suggest how we do it.
For the values that she represents are not those of the get-rich-quick merchants, the bonus boys, the exorbitantly over-rewarded Sir Fred Goodwins, the expenses-fiddling politicians or the incompetent regulators who arguably have landed us in this mess. Her ship sails beneath the flag of public duty.
She has kept it flying, despite the squalls that have occasionally enveloped her own family. We could do with more of it in other quarters if we are safely to reach port. Clive Aslet is editor at large of Country Life