This seems to be getting a lot of traction in the headlines, so let’s talk about Michelle Obama’s supposedly grand faux pas in meeting Queen Elizabeth II in London. Time Magazine reported that the British (which include the “English”) sputtered with indignation when the First Lady touched Elizabeth’s back. The reaction seems a little exaggerated, considering the circumstances, but it still broke protocol:
The rules are set in stone, and so the eagerly watching British media sputtered when the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, briefly put her hand on the back of Queen Elizabeth II as the two chatted at a reception. …
Of course, there are corollaries to this. One must certainly touch the Queen if the monarch offers her hand (though you should return this not with a firm handshake but just a touch). On Wednesday, Michelle Obama put her hand on the Queen only after the Queen had placed her own hand on the First Lady’s back as part of their conversation. So there is room for theological argument as to whether the American reciprocity of touch was allowable given the social dynamics of the situation. …
In any case, the touch lasted just a second or two, and the Queen did not seem particularly perturbed — though she appeared slightly surprised as she drew away.
I’m not much a fan of royalty and the pomp that accompanies the monarchy, so I tend to see this as a much lesser offense than getting the name of the country wrong. The gesture from the Queen would normally prompt a human response of reciprocation. Time’s explanation of the miraculous healing powers of the Queen’s touch is interesting from a historical perspective, but since Americans don’t tend to believe such things about monarchs (we made that clear in 1776, although the Princess Di infatuation may have confused some people), Mrs. Obama’s treatment of Elizabeth II as a mere mortal is somewhat understandable.
Of course, diplomatic protocol exists for a reason, and it’s clear Mrs. Obama didn’t adhere to it, if she ever got instruction on it in the first place. As it turns out, she might not have had it, since her husband hasn’t gotten around to staffing the White House protocol office. Apparently, no one told Barack Obama that the State Department had staff to fill the gap, either:
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.
Hiring a chief of protocol isn’t as high a priority as staffing, say, the Treasury, but the position is quite obviously critical to not looking like Ugly Americans when traveling the globe as head of state. I don’t think anyone has called this the Greatest Transition Ever in a while now. I think the bloom has left that rose, and this is just another example of the problem. Obama really had no clue as to the scope of this job.
So yes, Mrs. Obama committed a a small breach of protocol, but it’s not on the same level as the Angela Merkel back rub or replacing “Great Britain” with England.
Note: Comments copied from Headlines post.
Update: The offending gesture, from the Daily Mail:
Eh. I just can’t get terribly worked up about this, since the Queen has her arm wrapped around Mrs. Obama.