Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Hail to the chief

Prime Minister Holt and President Johnson
The White House and the Office of the Prime Minister today announced that President Obama will make his first official visit to Australia in March.

Barack Obama is the fifth American president to visit Australia. Time for a history lesson. It wasn't until 1966 that the first of these visits took place, when Lyndon Johnson set foot down under. This invitation was originally given to John F. Kennedy, who, had he not been assassinated in November 1963, presumably would have visited Australia in his second term. In 1966 the Vietnam War was nearing its height. Shortly before being succeeded by Harold Holt, Prime Minister Robert Menzies committed Australian troops to Vietnam and introduced conscription. Johnson's visit was overshadowed by controversy over the war and conscription. A pair of student protesters splashed a tin of red paint over Johnson's limousine as it travelled down Swanston Street in Melbourne. Similar protests took place in Sydney. When protesters blocked the motorcade route by laying on the road in front of it, then New South Wales Premier Robert Askin is supposed to have said words to the effect of, "Run the bastards over."

Johnson briefly returned to Melbourne in January 1968 to attend Holt's memorial service. In December 1967 he went missing, presumed drowned, while swimming in rough seas off Portsea in Victoria.   

President George H.W. Bush visited Australia in January 1992, with stopovers in Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra, where he addressed a joint sitting of Federal Parliament. I remember some school friends telling me about a demonstration that was held on the streets of Melbourne the day Bush was in town. My friends were apolitical, but thought it would be fun to follow this group around and see what they did. One year after the end of the first Gulf War, some left wing political groups made a statement against American militarism by going on a rampage through the Myer department store.

Having secured a second term, Bill Clinton visited Australia in late 1996. From memory, this visit was carefully coordinated and security especially tightened so as to limit the opportunity for protesters to make trouble. The public was kept well away. This happened again in 2003 when George W. Bush graced us with his presence. Greens Senator Bob Brown  was ejected from the House of Representatives chamber for heckling Bush during his speech. He wanted Bush to free Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks. Just as Bush surpassed his father by winning a second term, he also visited Australia twice as President, returning for the 2007 APEC summit.

What sort of reception will Obama receive? Will Kevin Rudd give him some R.M. Williams boots and some Buderim ginger as gifts? Will Rudd's welcoming speech have overly flowery language? Rudd is a good speaker, but unlike Obama, he's no orator. Will Obama really be going to the footy? If so, who will Barack barrack for? Foreign heads of state frequently come to Australia, but it's not every day that an American President comes to town, hence the special attention the media gives these visits.

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