I'm as common as commoners come. I don't know how to curtsy. Plus, I'm Irish American; we don't much like royalty. But I felt sorry for Britain's Queen Elizabeth this week. President Bush sent forth his minions to spin wildly about how hard he was cramming for his big state event with her this week. But then he goes and flubs his scripted lines, winks at her in mock-apology, and and finally cracks, stupidly: "She gave me a look that only a mother could give a child."
Bush's bizarre off-message ad-lib reminded this casual Californian what protocol is good for: avoiding inappropriate personal and political slips in public settings. Even worse than Bush's wink was his turning the horrified queen into his mother, summoning up his own relationship with tough, disapproving Barbara, and the queen's own strained ties with Prince Charles (I know I shouldn't think of Stephen Frears' wonderful "The Queen" as literal history, but who can help it?)
Plus, it's not the first time Bush embarrassed himself in front of Queen Elizabeth. The last time she visited, in 1991 when his father was president, Barbara Bush made sure her frat-boy son was seated far away from the queen so he couldn't act out. He did anyway, telling Queen Elizabeth that he was the "black sheep" of the Bush family and asking who was the black sheep in hers. "None of your business," the queen replied famously. You could see that she remembered the exchange in the icy look she gave the president before, during and after his callow wink at her yesterday. And Bush didn't seem to give a damn. "The 'black sheep' is now president, lady," his smirk seemed to say, "and you and and my mom can go to hell."
There were so many telling details around the queen's visit, but aside from his gaffe on Monday, I also paused over this: According to at least two breathless stories in the New York Times, Laura Bush was the driving force behind the big state event. She even insisted that it be the occasion for the White House's first and perhaps only white-tie event in two Bush terms. "We thought if we were ever going to have a white-tie event," Mrs. Bush told the Times, "this would be the one." Then she confessed she had to enlist the help of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who once famously referred to Bush as "my husband") to make sure the president actually wore a white tie. The queen, his mother, his wife, his secretary of state -- he's not going to let any of those women push him around! Except maybe Condi.
He's a sad little man, that George W. Bush.