Wednesday, May 25, 2011

State Banquet: President Obama, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II Hail "The Special Relationship"

It's personal: The President and The Queen celebrate the crucial alliance between Britain and America, note their own special relationship, too...
The first day of President Obama's State Visit to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was filled with everything from glorious royal pageantry during an arrival ceremony on Tuesday morning at Buckingham Palace, to a ping pong game with Prime Minister David Cameron and some excited London high schoolers--who won the match. It culminated in the evening's lavish State Banquet in honor of the President, hosted by The Queen at Buckingham Palace. It was an outpouring of personal and diplomatic affection: Her Majesty and the President both spoke about the "special relationship" between the US and Britain, as well as the fondness that exists between their own families. (Above: The President and Her Majesty)

"Mr. President, I am delighted to welcome you and Mrs. Obama to London," The Queen said. "We are here to celebrate the tried, tested, and, yes, special relationship between our two countries."

The guest list for the 8:30 PM banquet included 171 royals, politicians, dignitaries, and a smattering of celebrities: Film stars Kevin Spacey, Tom Hanks, and Helena Bonham Carter, and director Tim Burton. Former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown rubbed elbows with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Virgin founder Richard Branson, as well as the White House delegation, as did the President's favorite historian, author Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The evening began in the Music Room at the palace, where the President and First Lady Michelle Obama, clad in a floor-length white gown designed by Tom Ford, white gloves, and dangly diamond earrings, posed for photographs with The Queen and her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, After, they were escorted into the Banquet Hall in a formal procession, to a march played by bagpipers.

The Queen and President Obama sat at the center of the head table, which was adorned with masses of roses and ranunculus in shades of pale pink and mauve, and sparkling candelabrum. They were joined by the First Lady and the Duke of Edinburgh, as well as The Prince of Wales and his wife The Duchess of Cornwall, who had escorted the Obamas to the palace in the morning. Prince William and his wife Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, met the presidential couple on Tuesday, but did not attend the banquet.

Standing in the vast, gilded hall beside The Queen, the President quoted both Shakespeare and Winston Churchill, spoke of his own daughters' "adoration" for the monarch--"even before you let them ride on a carriage on the palace grounds"--and lauded the crucial diplomatic links between the two nations, noting his own and many Americans' ties to England.

"I bring warm greetings from tens of millions of Americans who claim British ancestry, including me, through my mother’s family," President Obama said.

And, perhaps because he had spent the day both immersed in the ancient history of the United Kingdom, touring the Palace and visiting Westminster Abbey, as well as issuing condolences for the tornado-related deaths of US citizens, President Obama spoke of his own humility.

"This dinner is a humbling reminder of the fleeting nature of presidencies and prime ministerships," President Obama said. "Your Majesty’s reign has spanned about a dozen of each, and counting. That makes you both a living witness to the power of our lives and the chief source of its resilience."

Indeed, there is little that is fleeting about The Queen, who has reigned for 59 years, the second longest reign in British history. The dinner itself was a powerful symbol of the endurance of the monarchy: Some of the silver service adorning the tables dated from the 18th century, and as is protocol, the dinner menu, featuring sole and Spring lamb, was issued in French, and included Royal Vintage Port 1963. The glittering Banquet Hall has perhaps hosted more world leaders and royalty than any other space in the western world. (Above: a longshot of the banquet)

In her toast, The Queen celebrated the "special relationship" between the US and Great Britain, highlighting the "shared history, common language and strong intellectual and cultural links." The President agreed, speaking of the longstanding partnership, and noting especially that in the battle against global terrorism and violent extremism, Britain has been "our closest partner in our struggle to protect our people."

"Our alliance is a commitment that speaks to who we are," President Obama said. "As we appreciate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I’m particularly grateful for the solidarity that the United Kingdom has shown to America over the past decade."

He also paid tribute to UK military forces, "which have stood shoulder to shoulder with us for decades." During his visit to Westminster Abbey, the President laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, and after, stood with his head bowed and eyes closed in prayer. The UK had just lost another soldier in Afghanistan.

The Queen also spoke of her "fond memories" of her first meeting with the Obamas at the G20 Summit in London in 2009, and later hosting Mrs. Obama and Malia and Sasha for a summer visit. She noted that through many wars, and especially recently, the US is Britain's "most important ally," before she raised her glass to toast the future of the special relationship.

The President ended his own toast by quoting Shakespeare.

"For the vitality of the special relationship between our peoples, and in the words of Shakespeare, 'To this blessed plot, this Earth, this realm, this England,'” President Obama said. 'To the Queen."

Apparently the musicians were a little antsy: The string orchestra of the Scots Guard mistakenly began playing the British national anthem before President Obama had concluded, but he soldiered on anyway.

The State Visit included an exchange of gifts between The Queen and the Obamas; offerings from the First Lady's White House Kitchen Garden were included in a gift for The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. On Wednesday evening, President Obama will reciprocate Her Majesty's hospitality with a diner in her honor at Windsor House, the residence of the US Ambassador.

Administration officials accompanying President Obama at the State Banquet included White House Senior Advisors Valerie Jarrett and David Plouffe, Chief of Staff Bill Daley, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs Michael Froman, and Director for European Affairs Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, as well as officials from the State Department and the US Embassy.

*The full transcript of the toast remarks IS HERE.

*Photos by The British Monarchy; banquet photo by Pete Souza/White House