Thanks for the DVDs, Prez—Still Have the Receipt?

Priceless Historical Pen Holder Not as Cool as “The Rock”


Published: April 2, 2009

I knew it. I voted for President Obama, but I knew that he was going to mess it all up at some point. The British are going to bring back the Stamp Act, and in this economy, we’re all going to be screwed. I heard rumors the Sugar Act is gaining favor in the House of Lords too. So everyone gather up your muskets and grab some feathers ’cause it’s Boston Tea Party time part deux.

It looks like Obama has pissed off all the king’s horses, all the king’s men and all the UK’s trashy tabloids. He gave a set of 25 American DVDs to Prime Minister Gordon Brown on his first diplomatic visit to the U.S. These were classic movies, sure, some of the best ever made, but is American democracy really symbolized by the “Godfather” saga or the “Back to the Future” trilogy? Wait, don’t answer that.

It seems like a case of a misunderstood relationship. We’ve all been there before. Your boyfriend buys you diamond earrings, and you get him a $15 gift card from iTunes. I mean it’s only your seven–week anniversary; exactly how far does he think this is going, anyway? But as much as I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, I’m a little nervous that the First Family might have made itself look pretty inconsiderate.

So what’s wrong with President Obama’s gift? Doesn’t “Citizen Kane” kick major butt? Heck yeah, but unfortunately it has little correlation to Gordon Brown himself. In fact, the British press reported that he’s not even a movie fan. (Who doesn’t like movies?) Worse, Brown’s gift to Obama was by most people’s standards exponentially more thoughtful: a pen holder made from the hull of the Victorian anti-slave ship HMS Gannet—the sister ship to the HMS Resolute, which provided the wood for Obama’s desk. I mean where do you even get something like that? I haven’t checked yet, but it’s not on eBay. With a gift like that, Obama can actually do presidential work instead of loaf around watching flicks. He can authorize as many bailouts as he please, veto some bills, doodle the occasional drawing, maybe play a round of connect-the-dots during downtime—indeed, the pen is truly the presidential weapon of choice.

The Obamas’ gift of a couple models of the presidential helicopter Marine One for Brown’s two sons wasn’t exactly a homerun either. There’s definitely a tradition of toy tanks, planes and back-hoes connected with the average American boy’s youth, but this is not exactly the most current trend among the video game generation of today. Unlike the Browns, who got the Obama daughters dresses from classy British retailer Topshop, which is, like, really, really, well, brilliant. Everyone knows that all the fittest birds in swinging London-town get their outfits from Topshop. I can only imagine the respective reactions of their friends when they show them their new gifts of diplomacy: “Oh my God! Topshop! I love them!” versus “Smashing helicopter mate, but are you some bloody yank?”

It’s pretty hard to deny that the Obamas don’t exactly appear like the most generous of hosts following the visit from the Brown family, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re totally in the wrong. In these economic times, maybe Brown’s gifts are too extravagant. I don’t think it’s a crime for a nation’s leader to practice a degree of frugality, and maybe that’s what the Obamas were trying to do here. But even if this is true, they could have done better.

What some gifts lack in monetary value they can easily make up for in sentimental worth. Often the most memorable gifts we receive are the ones that don’t cost much money at all but have some special meaning to us personally: that friendship bracelet from your best friend in fourth grade who suddenly moved to Iowa or that old piece of sea glass your grandfather found for you or some pottery your girlfriend gave you can mean more to you than all the Topshop dresses in the world just by themselves.

I don’t think Obama is a stingy gift-giver who puts no thought into his gifts, but I do think he’s new at this president shtick. Getting every single diplomatic and cultural idiosyncrasy right for every diplomat in the world is a nigh-impossible task, and it looks like Obama might have underestimated the British sense of decorum surrounding gifts. We are talking about a constitutional monarchy whose diplomatic history involved the giving of extravagant gems and exotic animals, and often the monarch’s own family members. Now maybe those movies were a weak gift, but if anyone thinks we’re going to marry off the First Children, they’ve got another thing coming. Diplomatic faux-pas or not, you won’t be calling me a Tory if those lobster backs want to go one more round. But in all seriousness, I don’t think Britain would ever consider going to war with us. Don’t they remember what happened in “The Patriot?”