Big mouths and ignoramuses have bedeviled presidents before Barack Obama, but he can actually write and sometimes speak sentences brimming with grammar and syntax. We're told he speaks prose with flawless fluency, particularly with a teleprompter.
It's his vetting skills with both people and events that give him grief. All he has accomplished so far with his Cabinet appointments is a lengthening line of rejects and has-beens, some fleeing just ahead of the sheriff. It's the price of not paying attention. And not just the Cabinet rejects. His attorney general tried to start a race war, though it's not clear how he would persuade "cowards" to fight each other, and the president himself had to publicly tell Eric Holder to put a sock in it.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state and the first unacknowledged candidate for president in 2012, flew off to Asia to sneer at anyone still concerned about the human rights that China has made a science of abusing, and then it was on to Brussels, there to tell the European Parliament that it was the Americans and not the ancient Greeks who invented democracy.
Just in case someone might not have got the point of who's important and who's not, she garbled the names of several of her counterparts. Hillary has always had trouble on important political occasions; Bubba learned that the hard way when he took her along to the frog races at Toad Suck Ferry, the turtle derby at Lepanto and the famous coon supper at Gillette down in Arkansas in the long ago.
But who was the ignoramus who briefed the president in advance of the visit of Gordon Brown? If Mr. Obama had never heard of "the special relationship" (which he called "the special partnership"), someone from the State Department probably has, and should have tipped him before the new British prime minister arrived. But maybe it wasn't a job for the Gaffe Patrol, after all. When a London reporter asked why Mr. Brown's visit was played at such low key, a State Department flack retorted: "There's nothing special about Britain. You're just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn't expect special treatment."
The president sent the prime minister home without dinner and was no doubt pleased that he had shown the world a thing or two about the new, improved American diplomacy.
But in the furor over the uneven exchange of gifts between the two leaders, the president looked the graceless loser, getting thoughtful gifts of a penholder carved from an oak timber of an ancient British ship enforcing the ban on slaving and a seven-volume set of Sir Martin Gilbert's new biography of Winston Churchill all in exchange for a DVD set of "classic" American movies. Not even a subscription to Netflix.
But maybe the exchange of gifts sent messages that sailed over the heads of the rest of us.
Maybe the British choice of gifts was just as artful as Mr. Obama's cheesy DVD collection (and flimsy plastic models of the Marine One helicopter for the Brown sons). The selection of the Churchill biography followed the president's return of the bust of Churchill lent to the Oval Office after 9/11, and perhaps the carving from HMS Gannet, the scourge of slaving ships, was meant to send a far more subtle message, that the son of a Kenyan father is far more likely to be the progeny of a slave-catcher than the descendant of a slave. Perhaps the president's choice of the DVD collection, which can't even be played on British DVD players, was intended to say, "forget the special relationship, that's yesterday's technology."
Or maybe not.
In the new redefinition of the New World Order, Winston Churchill is just another dead white man from a time as remote as the Peloponnesian War. "The special relationship" is a mere artifact of history, best not to speak of, since it might offend the French, the Germans, the Chinese or Upper and Lower Volta. Besides, Mr. Brown was invited to address a joint session of Congress, though almost nobody noticed.
Hillary Clinton, ever the merry prankster, reprised Joe Biden's suggestion that the United States and Russia should together hit the "reset button" with the gift of an oversized button labeled "peregruzka." Said Mrs. Clinton: "We worked hard to get it right." Said the foreign minister: "You got it wrong." Peregruzka means "overloaded."