British Prime Minister David Cameron and England’s famously tough media tweaked Mitt Romney Thursday after the presumptive Republican presidential nominee suggested that London might not be ready for its Olympic moment.
“It’s hard to know just how well it will turn out,” said Romney, who ran the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. “There are a few things that were disconcerting: the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging.”
Those comments prompted a quick rebuke from Cameron. “We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world,” Cameron told reporters after visiting the venues where the 2012 Summer Olympics will begin Friday. “Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere” — an apparent reference to Salt Lake City.
Local newspapers were equally tart.
The Daily Mail Online carried a headline, “Who invited him? US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney questions British public’s appetite for the Games during visit to London.”
The Telegraph wrote: “Mitt Romney questions whether Britain is ready for Olympic Games.”
Mayor Boris Johnson of London also chimed in during a rally in Hyde Park, saying to the crowd of 60,000 people, “I hear there’s a guy called Mitt Romney, who wants to know whether we’re ready! Are we ready?” The Conservative leader was greeted with a hearty “Yes.”
Romney’s initial comments came Wednesday in London during an interview with NBC News, at the outset of a European and Middle East trip aimed at burnishing Romney’s foreign affairs bona fides. Following the sharp retorts, Romney and Cameron met Thursday at No. 10 Downing Street, where both were more diplomatic.
“There are always a few very small things that end up going not quite right in the first day or so,” Romney told British and US reporters as the gleaming black-and-brass door of No. 10 filled the background.
He said what he had seen of the Olympics preparation since arriving Wednesday morning demonstrated “imagination and forethought and a lot of organization.”
Romney also repeated a comment he made earlier during a meeting with the Conservative Party Cameron’s political counterpart, Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, whom Romney addressed as “Mr. Leader.” That itself triggered questions about whether he knew Miliband’s name.
Mistakes “get ironed out and then when the games themselves begin and the athletes take over, all the mistakes that the organizing committee – and I made a few – all of those are overwhelmed by the many things that the athletes carry out that capture the spirit of the Games,” said Romney.
Cameron, who is viewed by some as a supporter of President Obama after lavishing praise on the incumbent Democrat earlier this year, later told reporters: “I felt a vote of confidence from what he said.”
A professor at Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy said the controversy was being overblown.
“What he said were the various screw-ups were ‘disconcerting.’ If that’s considered rude, God forbid that David Cameron watch ‘The Daily Show,’ ” said Daniel Drezner, highlighting a recent episode of the comedy show that lambasted the problems with the London Games.
Drezner, who teaches international politics and statecraft at Tufts, also said Cameron “was far more rude, because he suggested Salt Lake City was ‘in the middle of nowhere.’ ”
That comment triggered a humorous rebuttal from the spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker.
“He can stop by any time,” spokesman Art Raymond told BuzzFeed.com. “We’d love to have him and are happy to send a map so he doesn’t run into any trouble locating the ‘middle of nowhere.’ ”
Romney has long prided himself on his Olympics affiliation, which started in 1999 when he was lured from Boston-based Bain Capital to save the financially ailing Salt Lake City Games.
He attended the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, and then each Olympics since — usually decked out in gear from the 2002 Games.
His wife, Ann, also is part owner of a horse competing in this year’s Olympic dressage competition.
While there was some question about the cost of leaving the presidential trail for a foreign trip, Romney’s aides say there never was a doubt about whether he would visit the London Games.
Even before the flap over his comments about London’s Olympic preparedness, Romney’s trip was off to a troubling start. On Wednesday, The Telegraph published an anonymous comment — attributed to one of Romney’s foreign affairs advisers — that the Obama White House did not sufficiently appreciate the shared “Anglo-Saxon” heritage of the United States and Great Britain.
The remark was viewed as racially tinged, since Obama is the first black president of the United States. Romney disassociated himself from the remark Wednesday.
“We have a very special relationship between the United States and Great Britain. It goes back to our very beginnings, cultural and historical. But I also believe the president understands that,” Romney said during the NBC interview.
During his stay in London, Romney will attend the Opening Ceremonies, as well as select sporting events and fund-raisers. He raised $2 million on Thursday, and told the crowd at one event that he would return the bust of the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the Oval Office. Obama replaced the bust, loaned to the United States after the 9/11 attack, with one of President Abraham Lincoln.
Besides meeting with Cameron and Miliband, the latter of whom twice lived in the Boston area as a child, Romney also met Thursday with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Foreign Secretary William Hague, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, and former prime minister Tony Blair.
In addition, Romney disclosed he received a briefing from Sir John Sawers, head of the country’s top-secret MI6 intelligence agency. Revealing that he had such a meeting prompted even more negative headlines for Romney in Britain, where it is not considered good form to disclose the fact of such a high-level intelligence briefing.
Drezner said Romney is aiming to convince US voters that he can competently manage foreign affairs.Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.