Romney lands in London, starts global tour by putting foot in mouth
The presidential candidate irritates Brits by casting doubt on London's readiness for the Games, spills the beans on an unpublicized meeting with MI-6, muffs protocol at a news conference and raises money with bankers under investigation in a rate-fixing scandal
The Washington Post
LONDON — Thursday was supposed to be the easy day, when Mitt Romney would audition as a world leader by talking about shared values with the heads of the United States' friendliest ally.
Instead, the Republican presidential candidate insulted Britain as it welcomed the world for the Olympics by casting doubt on London's readiness for the Games, which open Friday, saying preparations he had seen were "disconcerting" and it is "hard to know just how well it will turn out."
The comments drew a swift rebuke from Prime Minister David Cameron and, by day's end, a public tongue-lashing by the mayor as the Olympic torch arrived in Hyde Park.
"I hear there's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we're ready," Mayor Boris Johnson cried out to a crowd of at least 60,000. "He wants to know whether we're ready. Are we ready? Are we ready? Yes, we are."
Cameron, responding with a note of irritation, said that "of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere," an apparent reference to Salt Lake City. That city held the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, which Romney organized. The prime minister and mayor are Conservatives, making their scolding all the more embarrassing.
It was a difficult start to his first foray on the international stage as the presumptive Republican nominee, one that was supposed to present him to U.S. voters as a potential commander in chief.
Beyond his Olympics remarks, Romney had a series of uncomfortable moments, some seemingly minor, but distractions nonetheless.
At one point, he told reporters about his previously undisclosed meeting with the head of the MI-6, Britain's secret intelligence agency. Earlier, during a press appearance with Ed Miliband, head of the opposition Labor Party, the candidate broke with typical protocol by failing to call on any U.S. journalists.
Romney also ended the day in a scene that could prove damaging for a candidate sometimes labeled as out of touch. A dinner fundraiser, which raised $2 million, was co-hosted by executives at banks under investigation in London's rate-fixing scandal.
For any candidate on a foreign trip, the margin for error is small, especially so for Romney, whose visit is drawing inevitable comparisons to Barack Obama's largely successful foreign tour as a candidate in 2008.
The notoriously harsh British media spewed brutal headlines about what they almost uniformly deemed a bomb of a debut for Romney. The criticism reverberated into the United States, overshadowing a day in which Romney wanted to polish his diplomatic credentials.
Olympics organizers have had to cope with a series of security blunders. Still, the hosts did not seem to appreciate a foreign visitor reminding them about the problems. Romney voiced his doubts about the final preparations for the Olympics during an interview with NBC's Brian Williams, taped as he began his trip.
In a reference to Cameron's icy response, a headline Thursday on the website of the Guardian newspaper said, "Mitt Romney's Olympics blunder stuns No. 10 and hands gift to Obama," while the Telegraph published an opinion column with a secondary headline that read: "Mitt Romney is perhaps the only politician who could start a trip that was supposed to be a charm offensive by being utterly devoid of charm and mildly offensive."
By Thursday, in back-to-back meetings with British officials, Romney was lavishing praise on London's Olympics efforts. He said "it is impossible for absolutely no mistakes to occur" at any Olympic Games. And in an appearance with Cameron in the formal White Room at 10 Downing St., he pronounced the Games "fabulous."
Romney's visit to Britain, where the country's leaders boast of its long-standing "special relationship" with the United States, was expected to be a relatively easy stop, diplomatically speaking, on his six-day foreign tour. From here, he will navigate more difficult terrain in Israel and Poland.