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Third date, and the fumbling couple fail to reach first base

Leonard Doyle
Wednesday 04 March 2009 01:00 GMT

The clear blue skies and the snow on the White House lawn would have been a perfect backdrop for a Rose Garden press conference. That would have set off Gordon Brown's budding relationship with the world's favourite president and scotched the ugly rumours that the "special relationship" was experiencing a rough patch.

But it wasn't to be. Instead there were knots on the brows of British diplomats as the Prime Minister's motorcade pulled up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They must have yearned for the two leaders to come strolling out to face the microphones, for the new President, to crack his trillion megawatt smile in Gordon Brown's direction, sealing the first European leader's visit to the Obama White House in the public imagination. But overnight, the press conference had been cancelled and it fell to the familiar British practice of blaming the snowy weather.

The notion that President Obama, who recently endured an inauguration ceremony in sub-zero temperatures, was put off making an outdoor appearance because of a little snow was laughable. Mr Obama had only recently called on Washingtonians to show some "flinty Chicago toughness" in the face of blizzards.

Instead of the hoped-for podium to podium event, the two men put on an unconvincing show of friendship sitting stiffly side by side before an unlit fire in the Oval Office, taking a handful of questions, an event known in the parlance of the West Wing as "a spray" or mini-press conference. The two leaders wore virtually identical attire for the occasion – pale blue ties, dark navy suits, black shoes and white shirts.

An American journalist asked about the President's alleged secret letter to the Kremlin over plans for a missile shield. The President spent what must have seemed to Mr Brown like an eternity discussing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Then it was back to the business in hand as a British journalist helpfully asked whether US-British ties had sunk to a mere partnership, instead of the more treasured "special relationship". Mr Obama complied with expectations, offering a lengthy if sometimes hesitant, response about the importance of the relationship to Americans and to him personally. "My mother's side of the family came from the UK," he noted to relieved laughter from the Prime Minister.

Nobody was rude enough to ask about the bust of Winston Churchill recently returned to the British Embassy, which had once occupied a cherished spot inside the Oval Office after Tony Blair loaned it to George Bush shortly after the September 11 attacks of 2001.

It's not surprising that Mr Obama didn't want Churchill looking over his shoulder as it was Churchill who ordered the crackdown on the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya in 1952, a time when Mr Obama's grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama was labelled a subversive and thrown into detention.

Staying carefully on message Mr Obama added that "Great Britain is one of our closest and strongest allies and there is a link and bond there that will not break."

The tactile US President stopped himself just short of touching Mr Brown on the arm at one point, and instead let his fingers hover an inch or two above the PM's sleeve. An evidently relieved Prime Minister responded by thanking "Barack" for his warm words.

It may, as Mr Obama noted, have been their third meeting, but the President addressed his remarks throughout to "Prime Minister Brown" until close to the end of the "spray" when it was briefly "Gordon".

Mr Brown later offered to take on the younger man at tennis, rather than basketball but if that was meant to be a cue for an invitation to Camp David, it did not happen, although the President had evidently heard of Mr Brown's skills with the racket.

Meanwhile, across town, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, quite a different drama was unfolding as Mr Brown's predecessor, once the darling of the Bush White House, held forth in his inimitable way about the need to grapple with climate change. Tony Blair was addressing a packed room of senators, congressmen and US business leaders before a battery of no less than 14 television cameras.

Mr Blair's appearance in Washington on the very day of the Prime Minister's summit with Mr Obama couldn't be helped, even though it can't have been helpful. His presence only drew attention to the US President's less than fulsome embrace of Mr Brown, despite his carefully rehearsed bromides about the enduring strength of the "special relationship".

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