Here's Your Gift, Mr. President. Please Stick Your Neck Out.

Really, you shouldn't have: President Obama takes off the gold chain given to him by Saudi King Abdullah.
Really, you shouldn't have: President Obama takes off the gold chain given to him by Saudi King Abdullah. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009

Upon his arrival in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, President Obama was greeted by King Abdullah in an elaborate welcome ceremony that included a gift-giving segment.

The Saudi king presented the president with a necklace.

As an aide to the king approached the president with the jewelry, Obama said, "Goodness gracious. That's something there."

Indeed it was.

The Associated Press described it as the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit and called it the country's highest honor. But one of the rules in politics is never be photographed wearing hats, costumes or a national dress other than one's own. The resulting photographs are easy fodder for any would-be comedian, and they also don't do much to help one's swagger. Added to that list of things-not-to-wear should be large gold necklaces adorned with medallions the size of an espresso saucer.

King Abdullah's sentiment might have been lovely and the generosity earnest, but to Western eyes, the theatrically large necklace called to mind something that would have been favored by a rap star. The medallion hung from a series of gold links that honest to goodness looked just like a dookie chain. It could have been something championed by the aesthetically challenged Flavor Flav, and who would have thought his name could ever be mentioned in the same paragraph as Obama's?

No Westerner would have been able to pull off this much gilded symbolism, Obama included. A man who likes his suits sober and his slacks with conservative pleats can't get away with that much gold draped around his neck.

The president wore the necklace long enough for a few photographs to be taken. And then he removed it for "safekeeping."

The people of Saudi Arabia might have looked at the images of Obama and seen the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit and all of the honor and prestige that accompanies it. The Western public can only relate to what it knows. Consider the medals commemorating the Kennedy Center Honors. The recipients are draped in a strangely constructed rainbow ribbon with what, from a distance, looks like sticks of gum attached. Those familiar with the Honors know what the ribbon means. They are impressed when they see it, not bemused. Someone not in-the-know might be inclined to chortle.

And what do folks know about big, glittery pieces of men's jewelry worn with business suits? They're the terrain of rappers. (See Jay-Z or the occasional goodfella.)

There's also the added impact of race. While an ethnically diverse group of men wear flashy jewelry, popular culture associates it with young black men who have made themselves wealthy rapping their way through the entertainment world. The dots from leader of the free world to rapper were connected faster with Obama. Still, the image of pretty much any other head of state draped in such a massive necklace would have led the mind to the same conclusion: MC President. MC Prime Minister. MC Chancellor.

The problem with diplomatic gift-giving is that it has nothing to do with the recipient and everything to do with the giver. That contrasts sharply with the world of regular people, in which most gifting begins with a few simple questions: What would make the recipients happy? What might they need? What would hold symbolic value for them?

Did President Obama, for instance, really think that Queen Elizabeth II was desperate for an iPod or was the choice a statement about his modern, youthful, high-tech sensibility? At least he did not attach it to a jogging band and attempt to strap it around her upper arm.

When these presentations involve attire, they often seem like a test of mettle for heads of state. Will they be able to bear up under the burden of some bit of costuming or accessorizing that runs contrary to what their culture defines as sober, dignified and reassuringly conservative? We tend to have a narrow definition of what constitutes appropriate attire for male politicians. It ranges from a suit to khakis and windbreaker. The only jewelry allowed is a watch, a flag pin and a wedding ring. A "Livestrong" bracelet gets a pass. Anything more leaves one suspicious, giggly or simply dismayed.

Seeing Obama draped in a necklace that looks like it could have come from Jacob the Jeweler is a communications disconnect. His words were gracious: "I consider the king's friendship a great blessing," he said. "And I am very appreciative that he would bestow this honor on me during this visit." But he was not smiling as he removed the gift. And we were not left thinking that he had had an experience that he'd like to repeat.

Like American presidents before him, Obama put on a diplomatic face. He had to wear and be photographed in something that violates the rules of what says "distinguished" to his constituents. All he can do now is wait for King Abdullah to visit the White House. And figure out which high American honor requires the donning of a Stetson.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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