What’s the perfect gift for a queen or pope? Gift unit helps out Obama

When President Obama travels the world, the Protocol Gift Unit leads the gift giving. Find out what to get the pope and what not to get Queen Elizabeth II.

Evan Vucci/AP Photo
President Barack Obama making a statement on the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement on Saturday, Dec. 4, in Washington.

Having trouble selecting just the right sweater for your sister-in-law? Things could be worse. How would you like to pick out a proper gift for the pope?

Or maybe the king of Saudi Arabia is dropping by. You’d like to give him a souvenir, but it’s hard to think of something novel: He can buy anything he wants. And has.

Have no fear, the Protocol Gift Unit is here! It’s true: There is an arm of the US State Department whose job it is to pick out presents for foreign dignitaries. (It’s also where gifts to the United States from other nations end up, but that’s another story.)

Their work isn’t easy. First of all, they have a budget. They’re no longer giving away Cadillacs, as Richard Nixon once did to Leonid Brezhnev. And the gift is supposed to be significant in some advancing-US-interests-overseas way.

“We really look to giving items that have a more symbolic
nature,” said Ambassador Capricia Marshall, US chief of protocol, during her confirmation hearing in June 2009.

The White House usually leans on the Protocol Gift Unit to pick out the stuff the president gives away on his trips. Not always, though: Somehow we think the PGU had nothing to do with that iPod President Obama gave Queen Elizabeth II during his visit to Britain in April 2009. The queen was not amused.

Hint for next time: The British like things carved from the timbers of old ships.

Mr. Obama’s done better since. Last year, he gave Pope Benedict XVI a stole that had been draped around the enshrined body of St. John Neumann in Philadelphia for the past 20 years. That appeared to be well received. Obama presented Kevin Rudd, then Australian prime minister, with a crystal statue that Mr. Rudd liked so much he bought it from the Australian government so he could keep it.

And during his recent trip to India, Obama gave a piece of stone from the construction site of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington to a Mohandas Gandhi memorial, linking together two legendary proponents of nonviolence.

That sweater idea seems mundane now, doesn’t it? Maybe you’ll have to rethink.

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