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White House Press Kit: Britain ‘slightly smaller than Oregon’

Posted on 31 March 2009

Toby Harnden –

So here’s what the White House is telling American reporters – and by extension the American people – about Britain. It’s laid out in an inch-thick “press kit”, with the Seal of the President of the United States emblazoned on the cover, handed out to each of us on board the White House press charter en route from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington to Stansted.

The United Kingdom, we are told, is “slightly smaller than Oregon”. As for the the British climate, it is “generally mild and temperate” and “subject to frequent changes but few extremes of temperature”. A “group of islands close to continental Europe”, Britain has been “subject to many invasions and migrations”.

We’re taken through the Roman invasion (“brought more active contacts with the rest of Europe”), the Norman invasion (led to “active involvement in European affairs…for several hundred years”) and various travails with the Welsh, Scots and Irish before the British empire reached its zenith in Victorian times.

Then it all started to go wrong. “The losses and destruction of World War I, the depression of the 1930s, and decades of relatively slow growth eroded the United Kingdom’s preeminent international position of the previous century”.

Those fretting about the demise of the term “special relationship” might not be reassured by this briefing book. There’s talk of a “strong bilateral relationship”, of the UK being “one of the United States’ closest allies” and of “close coordination” and “bilateral cooperation” between two countries who “continually consult on foreign policy”. Everything except “special”.

After the country sections, we’re introduced the personalities, with information mainly culled from their websites. Queen Elizabeth “enrolled as a girl Guide when she was eleven, and later became a Sea Ranger”, we are informed. During the war she “put on pantomimes with the children of members of staff for the enjoyment of her family and employees of the Royal Household”.

Gordon Brown’s entry reads a little like one of those awful Christmas round robins. Young Gordon, we are told repeatedly, was very, very clever. He “did well a school from an early age” and then “excelled at sport and joined in every aspect of school life, quickly becoming popular”.

He “took his exams a year ahead of his contemporaries” and “went on to University at the age of 15”, where he edited the student newspaper “in a prize-winning year” and won “a First Class Honours degree and a number of prizes for his studies”.

David Cameron seems to be auditioning for the role of British Barack in advance of his big meeting with the President tomorrow (in the Yellow Room at Winfield House), stating he was elected Conservative leader with a “mandate to change the party and change the country” and “believes there is urgent need for change”.

Since her presidential bid, Hillary Clinton, now Secretary of State, has scaled down her claims of being “instrumental” in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. All we get on the Emerald Isle is a modest: “With Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Secretary Clinton worked to launch the government’s Vital Voices Democracy Initiative.”

The former New York senator skips quickly over her defeat in the battle for the Democratic nomination. “In 2006, Senator Clinton won reelection to the Senate, and in 2007 she began her historic campaign for president,” her biography reads. “In 2008, she campaigned for the election of Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”

For those who might bristle at the “slightly smaller than Oregon” description of Britain (which seems to originate from the CIA World Factbook), US geographical comparisons are also included in the other country profiles prepared by the State Department’s  Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

Germany – a “reliable US ally” since 9/11 – is “about the size of Montana” while the Czech Republic “about the size of Virginia”. 

We are informed that France is “America’s oldest ally” and was “instrumental in helping Britain’s American colonies establish independence” and more recently has been “a close partner with the US in the war on terror”.

It is the largest country in Europe. But only “about four-fifths the size of Texas”.

Oregon, by the way, has a population of 3.7 million while the population of the UK is more than 60 million.