David Cameron Went On Letterman
Ah, the “special relationship”. Special for the British, yes. Merely a relationship for the Americans. A 2010 YouGov poll revealed that 85 percent of Britons believe the UK has little or no influence on American politics. They’re just too busy bombing Muslims and driving around in massive cars to care about whether Andrew Mitchell should be sacked or not.
The insecurity and desperation is always there. The British want to be loved by the Americans while simultaneously maintaining a superior, ironic distance from a people fond of guns, God and gasoline. So it was no surprise that David Cameron, ever the PR wizard, appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, filling the storied Ed Sullivan theatre on Broadway with the music of patriotic propaganda and incorrect historical bluster.
Things got off to an awkward enough start. Letterman, the old hack – flesh hanging from his face – slunk out and pressed the flesh with Cameron, clapped for a while in a way that was hopefully sarcastic (but was probably just insincere) and slid back to his swivel chair to give DC the chance to shuffle awkwardly in the spotlight, before gratefully waving at the band like a confused middle-aged tourist trying to be hip in a strange bar.
He had the look of a man who has forgotten what to do with his arms. “How do people normally stand?” you could see him frantically asking himself; “if I just hold my arms here like this, does it look natural? It feels strange to me. Oh God, oh God, oh God, they’re going to replace me with Boris Johnson because the floppy haired albino prick knows how to stand up like a human being”.
With his kicking-it-with-the-band-just-relaxing-in-the-spotlight ordeal over, D-CAM found sweet refuge on Letterman’s couch. Except it wasn’t a couch, it was the kind of odd, fuzzy easy chair you find in the waiting rooms of local government offices and high street banks. Not to worry, though, Cameron got his game face on – his “I’m listening and furthermore I am really thinking about what you’re saying” face. It’s the classic politician’s trick, perfected by Clinton, picked up by Blair and now cc’d by DC. It was, of course, all going relatively well. You don’t have the world’s most expensive education without being able to talk a little shit about the Euro with some bloody Yank, after all.
You could see Dave relaxing, thinking about all those British business interests he was serving, picturing a return to the big American table for BP, maybe a new bumper arms deal for BAE or a giant new research centre designed to pump out expensive and unreliable drugs for GlaxoSmithKline. Remember, he was telling his American audience, us Brits aren’t like those swarthy, volatile olive oil drinkers in Southern Europe; we’ve got our own currency and we’re doing just fine, so come on over and invest. He was already opening the email of congratulations he was going to get from Lords Coe and Sugar.
But then Letterman jutted out that famous jaw and switched his game on. He wasn’t going to listen to a lecture on the single European currency and he wasn’t going to ask about Andrew Mitchell. Why the fuck would he? Most of America barely knows who Cameron is, so it’s fair to say they haven’t all been furiously hash-tagging plebgate in Podunk, Idaho. He was gonna ask some silly questions about British history and it was gonna get tough for DC. And it’s here that the difference between Cameron and those grand Prime Ministers of the past became clear. Despite being posher than almost all of them, he hasn’t got the kind of across-the-board grasp that Churchill, Wilson, Attlee, Asquith and fuck it, even John Major had of the world outside of politics.
Of course he can say some carefully co-ordinated, PR-driven fluff about Wales and Ireland, of course he can make a carefully planned joke about the War of Independence, but Letterman asked him a couple of vaguely idiosyncratic questions about Rule Britannia and the Magna Carta and the PR-mask slipped. DC stumbled and tried to just smooth his way out of things in time-honoured talk show style. The audience found it charming, but I doubt immigrants having to answer the same questions to stay in the UK find it as amusing. I mean, come on, I’m not Julius Caesar, but if you’re the prime minister and you went to a school that teaches Latin from dawn till dusk, surely you have enough common sense to see that “carta” and “charter” are basically the same word?
“I’m being really ignorant”, said Letterman, as he asked his “dumb American questions”. 'No, really, I am,' honest Dave might have thought to himself, had he not been too busy adjusting his tie, quietly freaking out and trying as hard as possible to channel the affable charm of Hugh Grant doing the publicity rounds post-Divine Brown. “Boy, it’d be really good if you knew this," quipped Letterman. But old stuffed-condom head pulled through. He gave the liberals in the audience a real hard-on by playing the enlightened British dude, telling Letterman that obviously us Brits have gun control because we’re not savages, but that Americans should feel free to keep living up to that “frontier culture” of yore.
He chuckled wryly when talking about the funding of political parties, conveniently ignoring the scores of neglected UK funding reform proposals and the fact that his party would take money from absolutely anyone if it could. He’d found the classic Brit in the USA balance though: obsequious but also slightly detached in a wry, superior way. He’d played on the American desire to be looked up to and gently mocked.
Interviewed outside, one member of the studio audience said he’d liked Cameron and, as a result, would look him up on Wikipedia. And if that’s not success, I don’t know what is.
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