The Presents of Your Company

Hard to be the most-scrutinized glamour couple in the world: everybody has an opinion about what you say and wear—even what you give as presents. 

 That’s the unenviable position in which the Obamas have found themselves—twice—when exchanging the ritually-expected presents between the President and foreign dignitaries and heads of state. 

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 When English Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited DC last month, the Browns brought the President a penholder crafted from the HMS Resolute (the timbers of its sister ship make up the desk JFK used during his brief time in the Oval Office), a framed commission from the same ship, and a multi-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Mrs. Brown picked out age-appropriate dresses from a one of London’s hottest shops for Malia and Sasha.  (No word on what Mrs. O was given…)  In return, the Browns were given in a boxed 25-DVD set of beloved American classic movies and the Brown boys received toy replicas of Marine 1, the chopper that ferries the President back and forth.

 To hear the outcry from the British press (and his detractors here), one would have thought the President had offered the Browns nicely-packaged cow patties.  The general consensus from the press (and a lot of the letter-writing public) is the PM was dissed, big-time.  The President, they charged, gave him a gift that reflected no thought.  “He probably just sent an aide to Wal-Mart for a bunch of DVDs,” one blogger sniffed.  “Classy.”

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Now, according to his critics, the President has stepped wrong again with his gift to Queen Elizabeth during the Obamas’ attendance at the G-20 summit.  Her Majesty gave the President what she gives every foreign dignitary: a silver-framed, autographed portrait of herself.  (I envision her having someone call up the British equivalent of CostCo and ordering the frames by the gross, although they probably actually come from Asprey.  Maybe by the gross.)  They gave her, in return, an iPod, packed with videos from her trip to the Colonies that commemorated the 400th year of Jamestown’s founding, and a rare, signed book by iconic American composer Richard Rogers.

 Again with the carping.  “An iPod!  How cheesy!” was the general tenor of the sneer.

But the haters didn’t get it: yes, the Queen got an iPod in 2005 at the urging of her children and grandchildren.  (Walking the grounds of Balmoral plugged into Mahler? Good times!)  But  iPods get better with each new model, so the current version Her Majesty received is state of the art.

 I’ve heard from several places that both the Queen and her husband, Prince Philip, love Broadway musicals.  If that’s the case, who wouldn’t want a notebook signed by one of the masters of the art?  Showboat, Sound of Music, Carousel , South Pacific?  Rumor has it the Prince courted the then-Princess with Roger and Hammerstein’s “People Will Say We’re In Love."  (From Oklahoma—rabidly popular when they were a young couple.) So of course the book is a wonderfully thoughtful and appropriate present, touching as it does on the royal couples’ passion for show tunes—and their private fond memories.  The Obamas were doing what gift-givers are supposed to do: giving a present they think the recipient will enjoy.

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 So critics, put down the haterade.  The 21st Century President gave the Queen one gift that references how we live now (and that most of the industrialized Western world has plugged into) and one that is a lovely memento of some of our most cherished popular culture.

And if the Queen doesn’t have a problem with it, folk should just step back and shut up.

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 One more time: it really is the thought that counts.

Karen Grigsby Bates is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).

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is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).

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