There is a subgenre of English travel literature that features a generally silent amanuensis recording the peregrinations of a Great One. This starts, I think, with Boswell’s wonderful Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Dr. Johnson (1773) and ends with Graham Greene’s delectable Travels With My Aunt (1969). White House correspondents on the road with their subject generally don’t take this approach, however – they serve up pretty dry stuff. A delightful difference is furnished by Andrew Ward, who has penned a piece in the Financial Times in which the ghost of James Boswell (or is it Greene?) is ever present. No doubt about it, Ward is having fun. And so will his readers. A snippet from that amazing performance by Bush in Albania:
In Tirana… the road from the airport was lined with billboards welcoming the president and declaring that Albania was “proud to be partners” with America. As we approached the city, more than an hour ahead of the president, people were already gathering beside the road to greet his motorcade, many of them wearing Uncle Sam hats. The austere-looking communist-era opera house in the central square had four huge Stars and Stripes draped from its roof. For a president whose approval rating at home is near record lows and who usually acts as a magnet for protests while abroad, Tirana was clearly going to be an exceptional experience.
The reception could be explained in part as the natural enthusiasm of a small and isolated country grateful for the attention of a world leader. But more significant are the long memories and deep appreciation for US support for Albanian independence in 1912 at a time when European powers wanted to divide the territory among neighbours. Pro-American sentiment was suppressed during four decades of communist dictatorship after the second world war. But it was revived in 1999, when President Bill Clinton committed US forces to protect ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
Prime minister Sali Berisha accurately captured the national mood in his effusive welcoming comments towards Bush when the pair staged a joint news conference. But he also sounded remarkably like Borat, the spoof Kazakh journalist created by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. “Today is a beautiful day,” he said. “Today is a great day, historic for all Albanians. Among us is the greatest and most distinguished guest we have ever had in all times, the president of the United States of America, the leading country of the free world, George W. Bush [and] his lady, Mrs. Laura Bush.””
Bush looked to be struggling to maintain his composure as the press corps sniggered in the front row. “For me, it’s a great honour, and a special pleasure to thank them with gratitude and extend the most heartfelt welcome, in this historic visit, the first visit ever of a United States president in Albania,” he continued. Still he was not finished, adding: “thank you heartily, Mr. President, from the bottom of our hearts, fulfilling ardent and long-awaited wish of all Albanians to have a special guest in their home.”
But best is yet to come. Borat and Michael Jackson make appearances, and Bush does the dance that will define his administration for future generations. Somewhere in the White House press corps, a comic genius has found his calling.