As Britain prepares for Donald Trump’s first visit to the UK as President, the BBC’s Diplomatic Correspondent, James Landale, looks back at what happened when some of his predecessors crossed the Atlantic
it was a crispevening with the south bank of the Thames bathed in the moon shadow of Tower Bridge. We were huddled outside Pont de la Tour, one of London’s more fashionable new restaurants. Television crews, photographers and journalists mingled with crowds. There was a heady mood, an almost tangible sense of excitement. For this was May 1997 and inside a new transatlantic Camelot was holding court: Tony and Cherie Blair, fresh from their election victory, were dining with Bill and Hillary Clinton. For more than three hours, we interrogated departing diners about the menu. We tempted staff into revealing who had said what to whom. And we craned our necks to witness the body language. I reported for The Times: “As the party left, diners in the restaurant clapped and cheered.” In our current times, when there is such a loss of faith in political leadership, it is easy to forget the uncynical sense of hope of those days.
All was going well until, that is, the Clintons left to spend the night at the USAmbassador’s residence. As the presidential cavalcade started to cross the river, the gates of Tower Bridge came down and the bascules began to rise. Mr Clinton was trapped on the south side, part of his security detail on the north. It turned out that an old Thames sailing barge called Gladys had booked a bridge opening, the incoming tide was bringing her on fast, and no one had told the White House. A furious row ensued and Scotland Yard ordered the bridge to close. But the officers were told in no uncertain terms that by law river traffic takes precedence over road traffic so the Clintons would just have to wait.
This was not the first time things had gone wrong during a presidential visit. In 1982, there was a minor diplomatic incident when the White House failed to reply to an invitation from the Queen for President Reagan and his wife Nancy to come to stay at Windsor Castle. The invitation – the first such to be offered to any US president – sat in the White House in-tray for more than two months without reply. One possible reason was that Nancy Reagan often consulted astrologers about foreign trips. Willam F. Sittman, a former special assistant to the President later told the Associated Press: “Mrs Reagan was very strict about his schedule, and she would consult her astrologer to see if this was the right time to travel.” As it was, the visit went ahead and paid off: the picture of Ronald Reagan riding at Windsor Home Park with the Queen became one of the iconic images of the UK/US relationship. They were also different, more innocent days. The Guardian reported: “Half the American press corps who came over with the President were so fatigued at his being 30 minutes late that they decided to stay in London and ignore Windsor.” I cannot imagine that happening today.
There was a similar innocence in May 1977 when President Carter received a rousing welcome as Air Force One landed at, yes, Newcastle airport. The Newcastle Chronicle reported: “They packed the airport. They packed the streets. They packed the area outside the Civic Centre and they opened their arms to him. And he loved it. A great smile spread across his face at the airport as he was greeted by crowds waving both the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes.” In front of 20,000 people, Mr Carter opened his speech with the customary but unexpected Geordie welcome: “Howay the lads.” The only hiccup in the trip came when the President went to a dinner for Nato leaders at Buckingham Palace and somehow decided it would be appropriate to kiss the Queen Mother on the lips. “I took a step back,” she remarked later. “Not quite far enough.”
If presidential visits can be controversial, they can also be surprising. In October 2002, former president Bill Clinton attended Labour’s party conference in Blackpool. And late that evening, he got the munchies and decided to go to McDonald’s accompanied by the actor Kevin Spacey, and his entire security detail. He wolfed a burger, fries and shake as astonished staff looked on. There was an equally unusual moment in October 1970 when President Nixon and his wife dropped in for lunch with Ted Heath at Chequers. The Queen was also there – strangely the first time she had visited the Prime Minister’s country residence. And President Nixon, according to the American historian Sally Beddell Smith, suggested that his daughter, Tricia, might be a suitable girlfriend for the Prince of Wales. “More than three decades later,” Ms Beddell Smith writes, “when Charles and his new wife, Camilla, visited George and Laura Bush at the White House, he joked that the Bushes had better not try to fix up their twin daughters with his sons William and Harry the way Nixon had worked to set him up with Tricia.”
Clearly the Royal family can lay it on thick for visiting American presidents, if they choose to do so. In 1994, the Clintons were allowed the unprecedented honour of a night on the royal yacht Britannia in Portsmouth. President Clinton later wrote: “Her Majesty impressed me as someone who but for the circumstance of her birth might have become a successful politician or diplomat. As it was, she had to be both without quite seeming to be either.” George and Laura Bush were also invited to spend the night at Buckingham Palace in 2003, the first to do so since Woodrow Wilson in 1918. Such was the unpopularity of the war in Iraqthat much of the trip had to be carefully stage managed to avoid anti-war demonstrations.
Presidential trips to the UK are rarer than one might imagine, only 33 ever. The first was by Woodrow Wilson in December 1918 during a trip to Europe to conduct the post-war peace negotiations. The British then had to wait until the end of another war for Harry Truman to visit in August 1945 when he had an informal meeting with George VI. There was then another wait until 1959 when Dwight Eisenhower visited Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and stayed with the Queen at Balmoral. Her Majesty was said to have had an affectionate relationship with Ike who was her first president. He also spent a few days holiday at Culzean Castle on the Ayrshire coast where he owned an apartment: it had been given to him by the owners in recognition of his role as supreme allied commander during World War II. So, there were only three presidential visits in more than 40 years. Obviously, travel was not so easy and quick in those days but that is still a pretty sparse record. It was only with the arrival of convenient transatlantic flights that most presidents made one or two trips to the UK while in office. But some never made it, such as Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford. And most of the visits were quick and informal. The first state visit was the Bushes’ in 2007. The most frequent visitor was Bill Clinton who came six times and who was granted the rare honour in May 1997 of attending Cabinet.
Some things, though, stay the same. In May 1998, when Mr Clinton was in the UK for the G8 summit, Tony Blair suggested the golf-mad President should play a round at Ellesborough Golf Club near Chequers. Mr Clinton persuaded Mr Blair, who had hardly ever swung a club in anger, to join him. “There are only two rules about playing golf with the President,” Donna Shalala, the then US Health Secretary said. “Don’t keep a score and the President always wins.” Advice that probably applies today.