Chris Smith: Why Obama’s Royal Meeting Was More Than Just a Hug and a Handshake


The photos of Barack and Michelle Obama meeting the Queen that cover newspaper front pages around the world today are not simply striking imagery. They also make for an intriguing contrast with the long ending section of Dreams From My Father, in which a young Barack Obama discovers his Kenyan grandfather’s history of working as a servant for rich white Brits. Hussein Onyango Obama was a tough, adventuresome, brilliant man who left the family’s land in the country to go to the big city, Nairobi, and adopt many European ways. It was a brave leap, from the traditional to the modern, and it cost Onyango and his very extended family dearly in ways Obama, the writer, struggles to understand. One of the few tangible relics of his grandfather’s life is a small crumbling book titled Domestic Servant’s Pocket Register, bearing the description “Issued under the Authority of the Registration of Domestic Servant’s Ordinance, 1928, Colony and Protectorate of Kenya.”

A little more than eight decades later, President Obama is sipping tea with the Queen, and you have to wonder what’s going through his head. Maybe he’s just trying to remember all the etiquette briefings. Maybe he’s so overwhelmed by the economic meltdown that even in these ceremonial moments most of his brain is trying to figure out how to rescue the American banking industry. Today’s Daily News judges Obama’s body language “a tad self-conscious,” and small wonder: We’ve never had a president with a rich, deeply personal understanding of the complicated legacy of colonialism in Africa. So as he’s standing there grinning with the descendant of the rulers who commandeered his ancestors’ country, is Obama reveling in the rituals required of a head of state? Does he think the whole thing is absurd and archaic? Or is he taking in the surreal scene with a certain analytical distance, making mental notes and trying not to become woozy with all the conflicting symbolism? Probably we’ll need to wait about ten years until Obama’s next book, his post-presidential memoir, to find out.