Obama: Herman, as you know, I’m the first American president ever to visit the Sultan of Brunei on his home turf, and I want to get everything right, so fill me in on the details.
Blustercock: With pleasure, sir. Now, the sultan will be receiving you in his palace, and there’s a very elaborate ritual you’ll have to master. You will be introduced into his throne room by members of his household guard, and you will find yourself standing at one end of a long red carpet. The other end terminates at the royal throne, on which the sultan will be sitting.
O: So, I walk the length of the carpet, then, and shake hands with his nibs when I reach the throne?
B: Not exactly, Mr. President. Your first gesture will be to grab your right foot with your right hand and hop on your left leg precisely half way down the length of the carpet.
O: You’re kidding!
B: Oh, no, sir, I assure you, it’s all very much the accepted thing. You see, back in the late 19th century, the first representative of the British crown to Brunei, Sir Henry Bracegirdle, had a peg leg. On the voyage to Brunei, carpenter ants ate the ambassador’s wooden leg, rendering the prosthetic device useless. Refusing all attempts at assistance, he hopped down the carpet to present his credentials. The sultan was touched by the effort, and saw it as a mark of signal esteem for his country, and it’s been the tradition ever since for official visitors to hop down the carpet.
O: It sounds awfully silly to me, but if it’s got be done, I’ll do it. But you said I only hop half way down the carpet; does the sultan moonwalk out to meet me at midfield?
B: No, sir. Once you’ve gone half way, you let go of your foot and plant your fists in your armpits.
O: Like this?
B: No, not across your chest. Put your right fist in your right armpit, and your left fist in your left armpit. Very good! Now, pump your arms vigorously and hoot three times; then, still flapping your arms like a bird, run at full speed to the throne, laughing maniacally.
O: Are you out of your mind?!?
B: No, Mr. President, it’s all according to custom. This particular gesture has its roots in an old folk tale. According to the story, there was a sultan who reigned a few hundred years ago, and he was of such a sour disposition that none of the court jesters could make him laugh. The sultan would appoint a jester, and if the jester failed to amuse the sultan, the sultan had his head lopped off. The sultan finally became so desperate to find someone who could make him laugh, that he offered a chest full of gold as a reward for any jester who could elicit as much as a giggle. Of course, the penalty still remained in effect: fail, and you get your head cut off. Now, it came about that a young man from a very poor family heard about the offer, and, putting aside his fears, accepted the challenge. He carried with him a Rhinoceros hornbill in a cage, which he had saved when it had fallen from its mother’s nest as a young bird, and had kept as a pet for years. He entered the throne room on the day appointed for auditions, and, to his consternation, saw a pile of human heads formerly belonging to the morning’s unsuccessful candidates. He approached the throne, which was shielded from the view of the courtiers by a silk screen, and told a joke – I believe it was the one about the traveling salesman and the betel-nut farmer’s daughter. At first there was stony silence, but the young man lightly jiggled the bars on the birdcage, and his hornbill began hooting and making a noise that sounded like raucous laughter (which is the “song”, if you will, of this species of bird). The courtiers, not being able to see the sultan because of the screen, thought that it was the sultan who was laughing, and so, being courtiers, they all joined in. The sultan, who had not actually understood the joke, did not wish to appear obtuse to such a large audience, so he finally began laughing, himself, and hired the young man as his court jester, which position he held for many years. So, you see, Mr. President, this gesture mimics the Rhinoceros hornbill, and is a reminder of the courage and cunning of the common people of Brunei.
O: It still sounds pretty weird to me. Ok, having hopped around and flapped my arms and laughed my fool head off, where does all that leave me?
B: You are now facing the sultan, who will rise from his throne to greet you.
O: Do we just shake hands?
B: Oh, no, sir, not at all. Remember, you’ve previously been holding your right foot in your right hand; it would be considered unclean to offer that hand to the sultan. What you do, is bow deeply…
O: Finally! Something I’m used to.
B: …while slapping your buttocks vigorously with both hands.
O: Come again?
B: You’re emulating the sound of a galloping horse, in commemoration of the brave Bruneian cavalryman who rode through enemy lines bringing a previous sultan news of the Japanese invasion in World War II.
O: Ok, I think maybe this trip is off.
B: But Mr. President!
O: First there’s the bunny hop, then there’s the crazy bird imitation, and then there’s the butt slapping, which I get enough of from Michelle…
O: Er, never mind. Strike that. Anyhow, this thing is getting way too ridiculous.
B: But, sir, think of how offended the sultan will be if you call off the trip. And it’s a Muslim country, Mr. President; just consider how a cancellation will go down with the faithful all over the world.
O: Damn! Ok, then, I’ll go. But no cameras!
B: Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be possible to ban news cameras. This event is huge in Brunei, and the sultan wants to preserve the meeting on film for posterity. Your going there really does lend the sultan’s reign a great deal of prestige, sir.
O: All right, all right! I’ll do it. So, I guess I’d better start practicing. Let’s see, grab right foot with right hand and hoot like a maniac…
B: No, no, Mr. President! First hop, then hoot…
* * * * * * * * * * *
Herman Blustercock walked into his office in the west wing of the White House, whistling a happy tune. It was a fine spring day, and he was a young man who was making the grade in the cut-throat world of big government. He had just plopped his briefcase on the floor and was seating himself at his desk, when the president’s personal secretary knocked on his open door and sauntered in. She was carrying a folded copy of the Washington Post under one arm, and she stood in the doorway, gazing at Herman with a strangely pensive expression.
“Good morning, Ms. Stern. It’s a glorious day, don’t you think?”
“Do you think so, Herman?”
“Well, let’s see. The sun is shining, there’s a cool breeze blowing, and the birds are singing. Yes, I stick by my original estimate: it’s a glorious day!”
Ms. Stern took a chair in front of Herman’s desk.
“About those birds, Herman; were they hooting and laughing maniacally, by any chance?”
Herman cocked an eyebrow. This was a puzzling note.
“Skip it, for the time being. Herman, if you don’t mind my asking, how long have you been chief of protocol?”
“Oh, about three weeks.”
“Have you always been in the protocol field?”
“No, but I’ve been in government for several years.”
“Where did you work before coming here?”
“I held a position of responsibility in the Department of Agriculture.”
“You mean, like a deputy undersecretary or something?”
Herman simpered lightly. “Oh, no, nothing as exalted as all that. I was an assistant inspector of snow peas in the Midwest division.”
“Yes. I was angling for a promotion to soy beans, but then this gig opened up.” Herman rose from his chair, and strode to the window. He threw out his chest, shot his cuffs, and began inspecting the fingernails of his right hand. “You know, Ms. Stern, I’m not exactly without influence.”
“Were you a bundler of campaign donations?”
“No, but my father was. He helped me to get this job.”
“So where did you acquire your, er, sudden expertise?”
Herman sat down again and beamed at Ms. Stern. “The whole thing was a snap! I came across this wonderful book: Protocol Advice for Current Officeholders. It’s got everything you’d ever want to know on the subject, covers every country in the world.” He pulled a thick, glossy, soft-bound volume from the shelf behind his desk and handed it over to Ms. Stern to admire.
Ms. Stern idly thumbed through the book. “I’m not familiar with the publisher – Paco Enterprises. Where did you buy this thing?”
“Well, that’s the funny part. I didn’t buy it. It was sent to me anonymously in the mail, by some unknown well-wisher.”
Ms. Stern sighed, gave Herman a sad look through her eyeglasses, and unfolded her newspaper on Herman’s desk. “I assume you haven’t seen the headline on the front page of the Post?"
“No, I haven’t seen the paper yet. Here, let me have a…YIPE!”
Herman’s eyes rounded to the size of demitasse saucers as he read the headline:
BRUNEI BREAKS OFF DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS WITH U.S.; SULTAN DENOUNCES PRESIDENT OBAMA’S “OUTRAGEOUS BEHAVIOR”, INSISTS ON INSPECTING PRESIDENTIAL BAGGAGE FOR DRUGSHerman reeled. A cloud seemed to have floated in front of the sun, and the room appeared to be growing dark. He began to visibly wilt, his head sinking into the recesses of his suit jacket. In fact, he put Ms. Stern in mind of a time-lapse video, in which he resembled, say, a snow pea succumbing to an infestation of nematodes.
Ms. Stern rose to leave, and, being a charitable soul, patted Herman’s hand. “Well, try not to worry too much, Herman. Maybe that soy bean job is still open.”
In his black despair, Herman muttered to himself. “Who? Who sent me that book? And why?”
* * * * * * * * * * *
As he sat at the table on the terrace, outside of his penthouse high atop Paco Tower, the titan of industry was preparing to attack a stack of pancakes when his gentleman’s personal gentleman glided alongside.
“This morning’s edition of the Washington Post, sir.”
“Thank you, Spurgeon. What? Oh, I say! Did you see this headline? Mwahaha!”
Spurgeon glanced at the headline and permitted himself a slight spasm of the lips, which his employer understood, by long familiarity with his man’s temperament, to represent a sort of stylized guffaw.
“It would appear that the printing of a single volume of that book on protocol was well worth the investment, Mr. Paco.”
“Indeed it was, my dear fellow! I can’t wait to observe the effect on Hillary Clinton’s future political ambitions after she has digested my other opus, Perfect Alibis for Corrupt Officials.”
“I daresay, sir, that the results will give rise to an entirely new connotation for the expression, ‘meteoric career’”.