The Art (And Artlessness) Of The Presidential Gift

President Dwight Eisenhower touches the head of Dzimbo, a 440-pound elephant, on Oct. 12, 1959. The French Community of African Republics sent Dzimbo to Washington as a gift for the president.

President Dwight Eisenhower touches the head of Dzimbo, a 440-pound elephant, on Oct. 12, 1959. The French Community of African Republics sent Dzimbo to Washington as a gift for the president. Byron Rollins/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Byron Rollins/AP

Gift exchanges among heads of state can be a diplomatic minefield.

In the 1960s, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson visited President Lyndon Johnson at the White House.

As the prime minister was leaving, he gave Johnson a beautiful Burberry coat.

"President Johnson opened the box and put the coat on, and the sleeves came about halfway on his arms," said Ambassador Lloyd Hand, who was the U.S. chief of protocol at the time. "He said 'Lloyd, see if you can catch the prime minister and tell him this is the wrong size.' "

The chief of protocol's job is to oversee the trappings of diplomacy, including gifts, so Hand did as the president asked.

"So I stuffed it in the box, put the box in my arm, raced down — I didn't take the elevator — raced down the steps, out the diplomatic entrance, [and] down the driveway because he was just leaving," Hand says.

As the prime minister's car rolled down the driveway, Hand rapped on the window.

"I'm sure he thought what in the world is going on, and I told him the story and he laughed and said, 'Of course I'll get it and I'll get the right size and get it back to him,'" he says.

Today, a bad presidential gift can make headlines.

Two years ago, President Obama was criticized for giving the queen of England an iPod. This time he got better reviews for giving her a handmade album of photos from her parents' visit to the U.S. in 1939.

A Knockout Gift

During the Clinton administration, one of Chief of Protocol Mary Mel French's biggest successes came when her team learned that South African leader Nelson Mandela was a boxing fan.

"We wrote letters to all the major living boxers in the United States and their agents and asked if they would give a ticket to one of their major matches or a program that they signed or something that was from this famous boxing match, whatever it was," she says.

The boxers not only sent memorabilia; they each wrote a letter to Mandela. French's team bound it all into a volume with photographs, and President Clinton presented the scrapbook to Mandela.

"When he opened this gift he was so surprised that he cried," she says.

A Cute Dog

When the American president receives a gift, it often goes to the National Archives. But some gifts are beyond the job description of even the best archivists.

One night during the George W. Bush presidency, Nancy Kegan Smith — director of the presidential materials staff at the archives — got a call from the National Security Council staff.

President Clinton shows Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej photos of famous American jazz musicians as they exchange gifts at Bangkok's Grand Palace on Nov. 26, 1996.

President Clinton shows Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej photos of famous American jazz musicians as they exchange gifts at Bangkok's Grand Palace on Nov. 26, 1996. Blake Sell/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Blake Sell/AP

"Would we come pick up a dog? And I'm like is this a china dog? And they're going, 'No a real cute dog, a live dog.' And I'm going, 'The archives does not pick up live animals. Cute or not,' " she says.

The cute dog was a Bulgarian sheepdog, a gift from the president of Bulgaria and his wife, running amok in the National Security Council.

But aside from the dog, there are other gifts of note at the archives. The most opulent ones often came from oil-rich countries.

'Everyone Knows Who Tiffany Is'

Matching over-the-top gifts can be a challenge for the chief of protocol, because the U.S. can't spend that much money but doesn't want to insult a head of state.

Under Clinton, French came up with this solution.

"We asked Tiffany & Co. if they would come to the White House and design a silver piece for us to give only at state visits, and anything from Tiffany is always a big hit," she says. "Around the world, everyone knows who Tiffany is."

The design was destroyed when Clinton left office.

Although these gestures are symbolic, former Chief of Protocol Hand says they smooth the way for weightier matters.

"The substance of the visit could be very challenging, but if you can create an atmosphere conducive to people wanting to work with you, then you're successful," he says.

That's what President Obama hopes for each time he delivers a gift this week in Europe.

Correction June 9, 2011

The audio and a previous Web version of this story incorrectly said that the dog given to President George W. Bush was a gift from the King of Bulgaria. It was actually from Bulgaria's president and his wife.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.