The two worlds of George BushJonathan Freedland reports on the first full day of the president's state visit.
All is calm, inside the bubble. Outside there may be baying demonstrators, clashing with dense lines of fluorescent-yellow police. Outside, a few streets away, there may sit a House of Commons bristling with anger at a war so many millions did not want. And outside, several thousand miles away, there may be the unfinished business of that decision: an occupation which sees the loss of a British or American life almost every day.
But inside the Bush bubble, all that clamour is far away. The combination of ceremony and security required for this, the first state visit ever granted to an American president, ensured that George Bush spent yesterday sealed off from any potential intrusions of nastiness. He moved in a bubble that enveloped him wherever he went, allowing him and his hosts to think only pleasant thoughts.
He began his day taking breakfast with the Windsors. A vicious rumour said he had kept the Queen waiting for five minutes, but that did not sound like a man known to regard unpunctuality as a sign of sackable indiscipline. He was certainly on time for his first engagement of the day, the formal welcome at Buckingham Palace.
For this, and lest he even breathe the same air as the protesters outside, he was ferried by limousine from the back door of the palace round to the front. It was the shortest political car ride since Pauline Prescott saved her hairdo on the seafront at Bournemouth. The presidential motorcade was so long, stretching from point of departure to destination without even moving, that the bullet-proofed Cadillac barely needed to inch out of first gear.
As the 41-gun salute sounded just over the wall in Green Park, a footman (mysteriously not carrying a reporter's notebook) opened the presidential car door. The first couple emerged, looking pleased as punch. Up the red-carpeted stairs, to a receiving line in which the Lord Lieutenant was first and a Mr Tony Blair was second. (One of the quirks of royal occasions is their knack for putting mere elected politicians in their place: Blair, so used to being the star, was yesterday demoted to a place in the chorus line.)
Even this was not exposed to the outside world. Instead the Bushes were welcomed into a specially constructed pavilion at the front of Buck House. Decked out in red, white and blue it looked like a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlour, sealed with an oversized royal warrant.
The ceremony that followed was one of those moments of performance art that somehow reflect an aspect of Britain that's easy to forget.
The president was introduced to the chief of the defence staff, along with the heads of the army, navy and air force; then he shook hands with the lord mayors of London and Westminster - but no Mayor Livingstone - and later watched the Household Cavalry mounted regiment file past.
And all you could think of was how these folk were kitted out. The military top brass were in full dress uniform, complete with sashes and gold brocade: they looked like extras from Oh! What a Lovely War. The lord mayor in ermine and chain, the cavalry with their red-plumed helmets - the whole spectacle was Ruritanian, to be sure, but also a reminder of how Americans see Britain.
We look the way they imagine their past to be. They are brought up on fairy tales of King George and his wicked redcoats, and there they were yesterday - for all the world, as if nothing had changed in 230 years.
We looked like an old country yesterday, with George Bush, in his plain lounge suit, the brash young upstart. When the president was asked to inspect the guard of honour he did it at breakneck speed - briskly walking past the rows of polished soldiers like a man hurrying to catch a train. Poor Prince Philip was all but running behind him, like an aged father desperate to keep up with his son. Soon it was over and Bush was back indoors, for a private peek at the royal collection. The Queen tried to appeal to her guest, showing off items of Americana - like Queen Victoria's snap of Buffalo Bill -but it was a strain. At one point the Prez seemed to be staring at the ceiling.
But the centrepiece of the day was a speech at the Banqueting House in Whitehall, scene of the execution of Charles I. There was to be no such act of defiance yesterday, not with a handpicked audience of foreign policy wonks and mandarins. There might have been heckling from anti-war MPs had Bush addressed parliament, but this was a suitably sterile environment. The president could stay in his bubble. And with the outside din of protest drowned out, we could let a different idea take root.
For Bush delivered a very good speech yesterday, well-constructed, well-written and, yes, well-delivered - even without the help of autocue. He said what many Britons want to hear from an American president, invoking the internationalist idealism of the last of his predecessors to sleep at Buckingham Palace, Woodrow Wilson.
For a lunchtime hour, we could imagine a different kind of President Bush. He made a powerful case for multilateralism, against the go-it-alone muscularity that has characterised so much of his rhetoric and record. "In this century, as in the last, nations can accomplish more together than apart," he said, promising that he had not given up on the United Nations, the European Union or a clutch of other international groupings.
Of course, he restated his insistence that sometimes force was the only way to do what was right.
But he blended that with some sound remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and also a Wilsonian call for democracy and liberty to extend their reach to all those places as yet untouched by their blessings.
If the Middle East was denied democracy much longer, he warned, it would "remain a place of stagnation and anger and violence for export". To say that these nations were somehow culturally unsuited for self-rule was "pessimism and condescension and we should have none of it".
These were noble and wise sentiments and, since he was in the bubble, he could make them with no fear of contradiction.
No one was going to spoil the mood by mentioning America's ongoing support for non-democracies like Saudi Arabia, or its desire in Iraq to do exactly what he said could not be done - to impose freedom by force. Best of all, Bush reminded his audience of the depth of the British-American relationship, with some warm lines about the wartime GIs who were "over here", and a reminder of how the United States was founded on the dreams of British radicals.
He lavished praise on us as a "kind and steadfast and generous and brave" people and said we were his nation's "closest friend in the world".
In that room, and for one day, we could imagine the special relationship as it might be. Sheltered away, whether at an indoor wreath-laying ceremony for the victims of 9/11 or at last night's state banquet, the spell could hold. But only until the bubble bursts - which may come as soon as today.
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