When I saw the headline “John Kerry Decides The Best Way To Apologize To France Is To Have James Taylor Perform,” I figured it had to be from The Onion. Turns out it was real news: after critics condemned President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for not attending the solidarity rally held in Paris last weekend in response to the assassinations of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and subsequent terrorist attack on a kosher market in Paris, Kerry went to the French capital and brought James Taylor. Taylor performed “You’ve Got a Friend” at Paris city hall as a type of apology for the sending of U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley instead of a more prominent representative to the demonstration. Now, I love James Taylor as much as the next Seventies singer/songwriter fan, but I couldn’t envision him as a powerful diplomatic tool. Before I learned that the criticism had come from Americans, not the French, I wondered if anyone in Kerry’s office had thought a better idea was to send Fleetwood Mac to sing “Go Your Own Way.” If Hartley wasn’t good enough, then maybe it was time to say that after 200+ years of a tempestuous on-again off-again relationship, “loving you isn’t the right thing to do.” But France’s ambassador to the U.S., Gerard Araud, has tried to assure Americans that the French hold no hard feelings over which American representative did or did not attend the rally. Araud has suggested that the U.S. media has created a controversy where there isn’t one and stated that French citizens are surprised that this is even a topic of conversation. (Maybe President Obama should send Fleetwood Mac to tell the media, and blowhards like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, to go their own ways.)

The whole thing got me thinking about strange diplomatic gifts, and after doing a bit of research, I discovered that heads of state and diplomatic representatives have been exchanging unusual presents for centuries. In 1502, a Venetian diplomat gave an Egyptian prince a block of parmesan cheese, a luxury item at the time. As a greeting from the “New World,” Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes sent sorcerers to Pope Clement VII. Louis XVI gave Benjamin Franklin a diamond-encrusted snuffbox. The Marquise de Lafayette gave President John Quincy Adams an alligator. In 1826, Muhammad Ali of Egypt gifted a giraffe to King Charles X of France. From one paranoid autocrat to another, Josef Stalin sent Kim Il Sung an armored limousine. Kim Jong Il’s favorite diplomatic gift allegedly was a basketball signed by Michael Jordan. The Chinese have been giving pandas as diplomatic gifts since the Tang Dynasty, and Richard Nixon received two, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, in 1972. President Obama once gave Queen Elizabeth II an iPod loaded with showtunes. In 2013, Malian officials gave a camel to French President Francoise Hollande as thanks for French military assistance against Islamic rebels. Hollande regifted the camel to a Timbuktu family, which later enjoyed it in a stew.

Compared to some of these, perhaps James Taylor singing wasn’t really a strange gift. After all, didn’t rock-n-roll end the Cold War?

Further reading:


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