This country often takes a very cavalier attitude toward ceremony and punctiliousness. I often get letters and e-mails from total strangers who address me as “Dear John,” or even “dear john,” capital letters having become optional in e-mails. That’s fine with me and quite in keeping with the character of this bumptious, informal, everyone’s-a-friend-until-proven-otherwise, howdy-pardner country of ours.
Even on state occasions the informal often intrudes, sometimes for better and sometimes not. While Ronald Reagan’s immense funeral was stage managed to perfection, intensely moving and with nary a wrong note, presidential inaugurations usually seem, to me at least, lacking in ceremonial pizzazz, a high school graduation ceremony on a larger scale.
The British are supposed to do these things much better, although that reputation is of relatively recent vintage. Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838 was more or less a shambles, thanks to a lack of rehearsal. At one point the Queen had to ask one of the peers, “Pray tell me, what am I to do now?”
I was reminded of all this yesterday evening when I happened to turn on the television just in time to see Britain’s new prime minister, Gordon Brown, arrive at Camp David for his first meeting with the President. While not a “state visit,” the arrival was handled with some ceremony . . . up to a point.
When the Marine Corps helicopter that had ferried Brown from Andrews Air Force Base landed, two lines of sailors and Marines in dress uniforms marched out and lined either side of the path from the helicopter, standing at rigid attention. Then the President—dressed in a tie and sport coat—appeared, accompanied by a naval officer in dress summer uniform. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, the prime minister descended and warmly shook hands with President Bush, who introduced him to the naval officer and led him between the lines of sailors and Marines, who were all saluting smartly.
So far so good. Then the President led Brown to a golf cart. Brown got in the passenger side, the President slipped behind the wheel, did a 360 in front of the press corps, and “the leader of the free world” and the head of government of our closest ally went tootling off together to Camp David.
Welcome to America, Prime Minister.
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