I find myself needing to spend a minute on The Hug. Apparently, in preparing for a royal audience, centuries of protocol can basically be summed up as “whatever you do, don’t touch the Queen.” Forget the curtsey/no curtsey debate. Forget never turning your back on royalty. In terms of national slights, forget even the last-minute trip to Best Buy last month when the Browns visited, and we belatedly remembered the British fetish for exchanging house-warming gifts. The one thing you don’t do is touch Her.
So what did Mrs. Obama have to go and do? She touched her.
And what happened next? Clive Aslet captured the moment in a magnificent Op-Ed tribute to the Queen in the UK’s Telegraph titled, “Now That’s A First Lady.”
And when Mrs Obama – no Lizard of Oz, as Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating was dubbed when he dared to put his arm around the Queen in 1992 – committed a similar breach of protocol by placing her hand on the royal back, what was the response? Could one believe one’s eyes? A tiny gloved hand crept around the First Lady’s back, the arm attached to it too short to go more than half way. Is this what psychiatrists call the disinhibition of old age? No, the Queen perfectly judged the situation. She wanted the Obamas, two emotionally explicit people, to feel among friends. She bent the rules. She got it right. We knew she would.
As Aslet suggests, the moment that mattered was not Michelle’s “mistake,” but the Queen’s response to it. In a culture that is still coming to terms with the truth and pain of its racial history, the royal gesture was packed with meaning. The Queen is a living symbol of the worldview that all men are not really created so equal, a worldview that has done more damage to more people on a global scale than perhaps any other, particularly on the continent of Africa. And she chose not to enforce her aristocratic prerogative with this couple of African descent now at the helm of a former British colony.
Michelle invited the Queen to make a basic human connection. Premeditated or not, it was bold. But the truly revolutionary part was that Elizabeth took her up on it.