LONDON — Mitt Romney had intended to start his foreign trip on a high note, but his message of statesmanship and friendship between nations was quickly drowned out by a British media frenzy over a remark he made about some early glitches in the handling of the Olympic Games that open here Friday.
The presumed Republican nominee spent Thursday in a round of meetings with current and former British leaders, but he was met with questions from the British and American media about his comment Thursday night to “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams that some of the early Olympic reports had been “disconcerting.”
“The stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging,” Romney told Williams.
Never mind that Romney has, for the most part, spoken glowingly of the Olympic events in London and the imaginative approach that leaders have taken here: He was greeted Thursday with a front page opinion headline in one of London’s morning papers taking issue with what was framed as his guile.
Before meeting Romney in the afternoon, Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to push back against the suggestion that anything was awry, saying England would “show the whole world, not just that we come together as a United Kingdom, but also, we’re extremely good at welcoming people from across the world.”
Without specifically being asked about Romney’s comments, he volunteered that England was holding the Olympic Games “in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world…. Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.” (The British media seized on that comment as a reference to Salt Lake City, where Romney headed the Olympics in 2002.)
By mid-afternoon, as the Olympic torch arrived in Hyde Park, London Mayor Boris Johnson was using Romney as a prop, whipping up the crowd by yelling: “I hear there is a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we are ready…. Are we ready?” “Yes!” the crowd yelled back.
At Romney’s afternoon news conference — which ran live on Fox News in the U.S. — two of the three questions posed to Romney were about his “disconcerting” comments. As he had earlier in the morning after a meeting with Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, Romney softened his tone.
“My experience as an Olympic organizer is that there are always a few very small things that end up going not quite right in the first day or so,” he told reporters with a smile. “Those 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.”
Romney said everything that he had seen about the London Olympics showed “imagination and forethought and a lot of organization,” and said he expected the Games “to be highly successful.”
The more critical remarks took hold, in part, because Romney has been so painstakingly careful not to criticize President Barack Obama or his policies while overseas that he has made no other news. After meeting with Cameron — who did not mention the flap, according to a senior Romney adviser — the Republican candidate was so cautious in his responses that he declined even to restate his own position when asked whether the U.S. and Europe should get more directly involved in Syria.
Although Romney said he and Cameron spoke at length about Syria and other nations, he said that in keeping with tradition, he didn’t “want to refer to any comments made by leaders representing other nations, nor do I want to describe foreign policy positions I might have while I’m on foreign soil.”
“Discussions of foreign policy should be made by the president and the current administration, not by those that are seeking office,” he said, in an unusually deferential bow to his rival. “I really am not going to add anything about my own views on Syria…. I can only say that I appreciated the insights and perspectives of the leaders of the government here and opposition here as well as the head of MI6.”
(Soon the British media were debating whether Romney should have revealed that he’d met with the head of British intelligence.)
Nonetheless, Romney said at an evening fundraiser that it had been “a marvelous day.” At the event, which was expected to raise at least $2 million from U.S. donors living overseas, Romney spoke again about the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K., and of the men and women of Great Britain who had served in Afghanistan alongside U.S. troops.
“We have shed blood together, we have shed treasure together in various places over the years, and when times were most difficult for us, they came to our aid and vice versa. It’s inspiring.”
Romney also said he’d passed the sculpture of Winston Churchill next to Westminster Abbey and Parliament, “with him larger than life, enormous heft of that sculpture suggesting the scale of the grandeur and the greatness of the man.”
“It tugs at the heartstrings to remember the kind of example that was led by Winston Churchill. And I’m looking forward to the bust of Winston Churchill being in the Oval Office again,” he said.