White House, press pounce as Romney stumbles in UK

The start of Mitt Romney’s trip abroad has been rife with blunders, leaving the candidate’s campaign redfaced, the British press indignant and Obama’s team poised for the kill.


It was supposed to be the easiest part of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s overseas trip: a few days in London, basking in the comfort of a longstanding alliance and the familiar backdrop of the Olympics (an event Romney himself helped organise in 2002), before moving on to a higher-stakes visit in Israel.

But the start of Romney’s foreign tour has been peppered with blunders that have left the candidate’s campaign redfaced, British newspapers sharpening their knives and Obama’s team chomping at the bit.

Romney’s missteps, though not major, have served as a blunt reminder that diplomacy is tricky business – especially for those without much practice.

A ‘disturbing start’ to trip abroad

The gaffes began before the Republican even left US territory, with British publication The Daily Telegraph quoting an anonymous Romney aide as saying: “We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage and [Romney] feels that the special relationship is special. The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have.”

Romney’s team quickly distanced itself from the comments, telling American TV news channel CBS, “If anyone said that, they weren't reflecting the views of Governor Romney or anyone inside the campaign”.

Romney leapt into damage-control mode as soon as he stepped onto British soil, telling a prominent American journalist: “I…believe the president understands [the special relationship]. So I don't agree with whoever that adviser might be.”

The Obama camp had already pounced. Vice President Joe Biden released a statement saying the aide’s remarks were a “disturbing start” to Romney’s trip, while Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod took to Twitter to slam the comments as “stunningly offensive”.

Questioning London’s organisational skills

Things did not get better from there. Romney’s campaign had been counting on the candidate’s presence at the start of the London Olympics reminding voters back home about his own largely successful efforts in overseeing the 2002 Salt Lake City games. But before his meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Romney told US reporters that he was not entirely convinced of England’s preparedness to host the Olympics.

“There are a few things that were disconcerting, the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging,” Romney said.

He also appeared to question whether the British were unified enough to appreciate the Olympic spirit. “Do they come together and celebrate the Olympic moment?” he wondered aloud. “That's something which we only find out once the games actually begin.”

The remarks drew a swift rebuke from Cameron. “We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world,” he told journalists. “Of course, it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.” The latter phrase was interpreted as a reference to Salt Lake City, located in the dusty, sparsely populated western state of Utah.

Other British politicians were equally feisty. London Mayor Boris Johnson addressed thousands gathered at a concert in Hyde Park, shouting: “There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we are ready. Are we ready? Yes we are!”

Romney ended up backtracking on his comments, telling reporters: “What I see [in London] shows imagination and forethought and a lot of organisation, and I expect the games to be highly successful.”

But once again, the White House seized on an opportunity to make the president’s opponent look like an amateur. Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, told journalists Thursday that Obama, in a meeting with his staff, had “made it clear that he has the utmost confidence in our close friend and ally, the United Kingdom, as they finalize preparation to host the London Olympics.”

Forgotten names and unintentional dirty jokes?

Meanwhile, the British press reported a series of further errors from Romney. Daily newspaper The Guardian has posted a running tally of Romney’s gaffes on its website, listed under the title “Oh, Mitt” while pointing out that the candidate had violated protocol by publicly commenting on his meeting with the head of British intelligence agency MI6, whose operations are meant to be top-secret.

The Independent alleged that Romney had forgotten the name of Ed Miliband, evidenced by his referring to the Labour Party head who stood at his side during a joint press conference as “Mr. Leader”.

If some of Romney’s gaffes appeared to provoke outrage in the British press, others seemed to provide comic relief such as when Romney declared that he had enjoyed his time looking out of the “backside” (rather than the back garden) of 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the British prime minister.

It may have been an innocent slip of the tongue, but by that point much of the US press was also starting to wince. An online piece for The New Yorker quipped: “If there were an [Olympic] medal for diplomacy, Romney would already have been eliminated from the competition.”

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