Foreign officials typically shower Barack and Michelle Obama with all manner of keepsakes at state meetings in Washington and abroad. Fancy jewels, artwork, jackets, gold watches, and portraits upon portraits of themselves in any medium imaginable -- the first couple sees it all.
The State Department this week released the catalog of foreign gifts (PDF) that were bestowed on the Obamas and other U.S. officials in 2009. Gifts for the Obamas included an $8,000 bronze statue of a girl releasing doves, from Israel's President Shimon Peres; a $1,200 porcelain statue of oxen, from Chinese President Hu Jintao (who is visiting the United States this week); a $14,200 silver and pearl necklace, from Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia; and a $6,000 crystal table containing an image of the American flag, from Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.
The gifts are a longstanding state tradition, meant to mark the friendly meeting of world leaders and the countries they represent.
George W. and Laura Bush received similar items during Bush's tenure in the White House, including decorative items, pieces of clothing, and books -- as well as some more unique presents (fertilizer and a sniper rifle, for example.)
Foreign leaders often choose gifts of significance to their home country, such as Ireland Prime Minister Brian Cowen's gift of a shamrock to the Obamas last year, pictured above. Other presents are meant to symbolize a country's special relationship with the United States. Still others are delivered in the same spirit that we political civilians give a gift: out of the simple belief that the recipients will enjoy it.
But the Obamas, like the first couples before them, are unlikely ever to make any pleasurable private use of their luxurious presents.
Refusing these gifts would be rude or embarrassing to the donor, so U.S. officials accept them. They then immediately hand the items over to the Gift Unit in the Office of Protocol, where administrators decide where the gifts will be placed.
The 2009 gift list notes that nearly all of the first family's presents from that year have been placed in the U.S. Foreign Archives -- with a select few edible gifts entrusted to the care of the Secret Service.
Of course, it would also be rude if American presidents didn't reciprocate the thoughtful gestures of foreign dignitaries with gifts of their own. Much of this fare is also fairly unexceptional -- jewelry and portraiture and the like. So the gifts that stand out in public memory are typically the simplest, or oddest, remembrances:
• Obama famously presented Queen Elizabeth with an iPod loaded with Broadway show tunes in 2009.
• Earlier that year, Obama gave British Prime Minister Gordon Brown a keepsake that was widely panned -- a boxed set of 25 DVDs that weren't even formatted to work in British DVD players.
• President George W. Bush handed over a crate of Juicy Fruit gum and an Elvis jukebox to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2006.
• President Bill Clinton gave French President Jacques Chirac a teleprompter in 1996.
(Photo of the Obamas last March receiving a shamrock from Ireland Prime Minister Brian Cowen: AP/Alex Brandon)
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