Long live the Queen! And long live Michelle!
Their brief encounter stunned Buckingham Palace and the royal watchers of Great Britain. It stunned many Americans too. It was the hug seen around the world.
It happened at a reception in the throne room in Buckingham Palace. An official group picture had been taken of the national leaders at the G20 summit. As the leaders started filing out, Queen Elizabeth and Michelle Obama began to chat. Spontaneously, the Queen put her gloved hand on the small of Mrs. Obama's back. And the American first lady put her arm around the Queen's shoulders. Then, according to eyewitnesses, the two looked down at their feet and appeared to be discussing their shoes. They dropped their arms a few seconds later. The entire exchange took just seconds -- but it caused a small uproar in the British tabloid press.
According to royal protocol, you don't touch the Queen. You can not begin eating before she does. And you are never allowed to hug or kiss her. But, horrors, to put an arm over her shoulders -- that's clearly not done. Yet Michelle Obama did it -- and the Queen obviously was not repelled. She seemed to enjoy it.
The Obamas were elected promising change for America. In this small respect clearly, they may have brought change to Britain, too. Although some fuddy duddies saw what happened as a terrible breach of time-honored protocol, other Britons did not. The Times criticized the critics: "They missed the real story. What was far more interesting was that the Queen put her arm around the First Lady ... Now the Queen is not just putting up with physical gestures of affection from a woman she has only just met, but is reciprocating with one of her own."
As the big meeting was ending, President Obama performed impressively, fielding questions from a large assemblage of reporters from all over the world. He handled the gathering with a blend of seriousness and humor. Yet his wife was most impressive too. She handled the Queen, after all, like a pro. The Obamas are quite a team. No doubt about it; they conquered London. It was a remarkable debut for the young couple from America.
Indeed, it evoked memories of another young couple who dazzled America and the world a half century ago. Those of us who were there saw a handsome young president, Jack Kennedy, and his stunning wife, Jackie, take the United States and the world by storm.
Today, one man e-mailed that he was glad to see "the queen is loosening up and becoming a little less reserved around these amazing people." Another email: "It's actually impressive in a way ... the queen hugging a black woman from the south side of Chicago, wife to the most important man in the world. Michelle did what came natural and that is why we love her so much."
As Americans we can be proud of the way the Obamas met the challenge of meeting world leaders. It was a good beginning. Their people skills should serve our nation well.