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01.18.09

The Coronation of King Obama

The fanfare with which the president-elect will be inaugurated on Tuesday reminds the BBC’s Katty Kay of the pomp and circumstance adorning the British royals. It’s a shameful way to treat a president.

Why am I coming over all queasy this week? Oh, yes, it must be coronation—sorry, inauguration—week in the federation of the United States. So this is why you booted us out a couple of centuries ago. You simply replaced the pomp and ceremony of hereditary monarchy and with the pomp and ceremony of elected monarchy. OK, you didn't opt for the dynastic duo of Bush and Clinton, which really had us scratching our crowned European heads, but the fanfare with which Caroline Kennedy has entered the political picture suggests your infatuation with royal families is still not over.

This week Washington feels like London in the run up to one of our own grand royal events. Hostesses twitter on the phone, or just Twitter, to woo A-list guests to pre- and post-inauguration parties. A-list guests measure their piles of invites in feet, not inches (forget the endangered rain forest, this event justifies a few more trees), while the lowly populous frets over inaugural road closures and inconvenient security measures. The problem is, you've adopted circumstance without the scandal. Our royals do it much better.

Barack Obama has a four-year rental on the White House. We would do well to remember he doesn't possess the freehold.

Take this: In 1981, Charles marries Diana. She is the virgin princess who walks up the aisle of St. Paul's Cathedral, pulling a 25-foot ivory train, for a full 3.5 minutes (we counted, and given that most trips up the aisle last, what, 20 seconds max, it is one piece of trivia worth noting). Stores fast sold out of dainty china teacups emblazoned with the royal couple's shy smiles, just as stores here are doing a roaring trade in travel coffee mugs adorned with the Obamas' more confident grins. Sixty-thousand loyal Brits lined the streets to cheer Diana on, and, millions more watched the ceremony on television to hear the Prince of Wales fluff it. At the crucial moment His Royal Highness promised her not "my worldly goods" but "thy goods," which, when you're marrying one of the richest men in England, makes a difference. And that was not the worst of that particular royal ceremony's hitches.

Fast forward twenty years and many more than twenty tabloid scandals. In 2002, Charles marries Camilla. Enough said. Phew.

Obama's Presidency is unlikely to produce such fine pickings for the tabloids. Still, there is a more serious problem with treating Barack Obama as an elected monarch; one that affects us journalists, in particular. Put a man on a pedestal and suddenly it's hard for the press to drag him through the political wringer. It happened in 2003 in the run up to the invasion of Iraq and risks happening again.

In Britain, we invest the Queen with our ceremonial hopes which leaves us free to treat our prime minister as exactly what he is—an elected official, paid for by the taxpayers, and serving at the people's will. While George W. Bush was being asked patsy questions by a subdued White House press corps, Tony Blair was being drubbed by un-cowed political hacks. It is far easier to do when you don't stand the moment the man walks into the room.

Barack Obama has a four-year rental on the White House. We would do well to remember he doesn't possess the freehold.

America got rid of King George for good reason and it toyed recently with another dynastic George. Wasn't that enough? January 20 is indeed a day for celebration, as the world watches the peaceful transfer of power in Washington. I simply wish we could tone down the royal trappings just a smidge. Who really needs another coffee mug anyway?

Katty Kay covers American politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. She is Washington correspondent for BBC World News America and has lived in DC for the past 12 years. She grew up in the Middle East and has reported from Africa and Tokyo. Kay is a regular contributor on Meet the Press , The Chris Matthews Show and a guest host for the Diane Rehm Show . She is the author, with Claire Shipman, of the upcoming book Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success.