Romney Scrambles After Doubting London's Olympics

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is in the United Kingdom for the first leg of a foreign trip that also takes him to Israel and Poland. Audie Cornish talks with Philip Reeves about Romney's meetings today with current and former British officials.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney spent the day in London. It's his first stop on an overseas tour that also includes Poland and Israel. Today, he met with Prime Minister David Cameron and the former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

While he's overseas, Mitt Romney has promised not to criticize President Obama. But during an interview with NBC yesterday, Romney, who ran the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, raised doubts about something else: the Olympics. He was asked whether he thinks London is ready for the games to begin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MITT ROMNEY: You know, it's hard to know just how well it will turn out. There are a few things that were disconcerting: the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials. That, obviously, is not something which is encouraging.

CORNISH: Those comments are prompting headlines other than what Romney was hoping for. For more on his visit to London, we're joined by NPR's Philip Reeves. Hello, Philip.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

CORNISH: So before Romney met with Prime Minister David Cameron, Cameron was asked about some of the challenges the Olympics are facing. And here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. I mean, of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.

CORNISH: Yikes. Cameron seemed to refer to the fact that the Salt Lake City games, which Romney oversaw, were not held near a major metropolis. Tell us about the tension Romney's comments created.

REEVES: Well, Romney's broken an unwritten British rule. That rule says that the British are allowed to criticize the games, but guests are certainly not. What Romney said is, in fact, the view of many of the British. There's been a huge outcry here over the fact that a security company, G4S, failed to produce thousands of guards that they promised to come up with for the games, and troops had to be brought in to fill the gap.

So, you know - and a lot of people here have been griping about the games for months. How upset are the British about Romney's remarks? Well, they've certainly taken note. Those remarks caught the ear of the mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Johnson raised the issue when he addressed a crowd of thousands in Hyde Park today who had come to see the Olympic flame light a giant cauldron.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

MAYOR BORIS JOHNSON: I hear there's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we're ready. Are we ready? Are we ready?

REEVES: That's Boris Johnson. I mean, one needs to remember that he is one of the great showmen of British politics. Overall, I'd say that the English are a little miffed. The headline writers are having fun with it all. The British love tea, though, and in the long run, this will be seen as a storm in a teacup.

CORNISH: So has Romney tried to do any damage control about these remarks?

REEVES: Yes. He rode back. After meeting Cameron, David Cameron, the prime minister at number 10 Downing Street, he was suddenly full of praise for London's preparations for the games. He said he was excited by the prospects of the highly successful Olympics. He spoke of imagination and forethought and organization that went into the preparations, and he said he expected the games to be highly successful. Cameron also helped him out a bit later, saying that Romney had said to him that he's very much looking forward to the Olympic Games here.

CORNISH: Now there was another episode that happened before Romney even arrived. The Telegraph newspaper quoted an anonymous Romney aide saying this: We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he - meaning Romney - feels that the special relationship is special. And the quote goes on: The White House didn't fully appreciate the shared history we have.

And that anonymous quote, especially the bit about Anglo-Saxons, has created some fuss. The Obama campaign has complained. Now Romney says he doesn't share that view, and his staff has denied it. But what has been the reaction to the comment in Britain?

REEVES: Well, it certainly generated some heat in the media. But remember, on the streets here, Romney's not especially well known. And anyway, the public's attention today is really now focused on the buildup to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games and not on political squalls.

CORNISH: And Romney held a series of meetings today. Who else did he meet with besides the prime minister and Tony Blair?

REEVES: Well, he saw the finance minister George Osborne. He saw William Hague, the foreign minister, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, and the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband. Now after seeing Miliband there was a photo op where Romney referred to Miliband as Mr. Leader. That's raised some eyebrows here. That's not a term the British usually use. It's led to speculation that Romney had forgotten Miliband's name. It's kind of amusing here because Ed Miliband has a brother, David, a former foreign minister, with whom he competed for the Labour leadership, with whom he has, in the past, been confused. But he also met the head of MI6, that's the foreign intelligence service, John Sawers. And then Romney went and told the media that he'd met Sawers, that's causing comments too, as is a strange convention in Britain, that you don't mention meetings with intelligence chiefs.

CORNISH: Philip Reeves in London. Thanks so much, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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