- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2011

After stumbling in his first gift exchange with the Brits two years ago, President Obama by all accounts redeemed himself Tuesday when he presented Queen Elizabeth II with a handmade, leather album of rare memorabilia chronicling her parents’ 1939 visit to the U.S.

Similarly, Mr. Obama’s official gifts to other members of the royal family - a custom-made set of Fell Pony bits and shanks for the Duke of Edinburgh, plants and seeds from various U.S. landmarks, such as Mount Vernon, for the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall - appeared to rehabilitate a much-maligned track record when it comes to British heads of state.

The highest-profile flap came in March 2009, when the newly minted president gave then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown a set of 25 DVDs of American films upon his visit to Washington. UK tabloids questioned the value of the movies in themselves - especially in comparison to Mr. Brown’s gift of a penholder carved from the timbers of an anti-slavery ship - but the exchange became an even bigger gaffe when the DVDs were revealed to be in the wrong format for European DVD players.

Mr. Obama tried again the following month when the queen visited the White House, bestowing on her a video iPod loaded with footage of her 2007 trip to America and Broadway showtunes. The iPod’s inclusion of some of Mr. Obama’s own speeches sparked accusations of vanity; the queen, in turn, presented her hosts with a framed photo of herself and her husband.

Presidential scholar Stephen Hess pointed out it isn’t the president, but rather staff members, typically from the administration’s office of protocol and the office of the White House social secretary, who select official gifts to be exchanged with heads of state.

“It’s a nice thing if you can sort of set the goal to spend as little as possible to give something as meaningful as possible,” said Mr. Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution and author of a book on campaign etiquette.

Mr. Obama isn’t alone in gift goofs, Mr. Hess noted. A former White House staffer for President Eisenhower, Mr. Hess recalled Eisenhower presenting a British head of state with a battery-powered radio that didn’t work.

Then there are gifts that are well-received.

“I remember once going into [President] Nixon’s office, the Oval Office, and he’d come back from China, and they’d given him these little bonzai trees, and he was absolutely thrilled by them,” Mr. Hess said, adding that most official gifts end up in presidential libraries.

On Tuesday, the queen gave the first family a selection of letters from the royal archives, beginning with a letter from former President John Quincy Adams to Princess Victoria in 1834 and ending with an 1897 letter from President William McKinley to Queen Victoria, according to reporters traveling with the president who cited Buckingham Palace staff. First lady Michelle Obama received an antique broach made of gold and red coral.

Mr. and Mrs. Obama, who spent Tuesday night at the palace following a state dinner, were sure to remember newlyweds Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. They donated six MacBook computers to the Northern Ireland chapter of PeacePlayers International, a charity selected by the couple to receive donations in honor of their wedding.