Does the umbrella represent political weakness?

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Dear Cecil: In news footage of President Obama in Havana, you could see him holding his own umbrella while walking in the rain. I remember reading somewhere that world leaders never hold their own umbrella for fear of identification with Neville Chamberlain, the umbrella-carrying British prime minister who opted for appeasement in dealing with Hitler, with spectacularly unsuccessful results. Was there ever such an unwritten rule? Did Obama not get the memo? Or is he a secret Chamberlain fan? George Mannes


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Are you kidding? Of course he’s a secret Chamberlain fan. You’re talking about the guy who (to hear some leading political thinkers tell it) embarked on an international “apology tour” in his first term, who “led from behind” in Libya, who introduced a policy of “appeasement” — that’s the term Jeb Bush used — with respect to Iran, and who practically gave away the store to Raul Castro. “The Neville Chamberlain of our time,” said Bush’s co-failed presidential candidate Lindsey Graham. Why, it’s almost as if, thanks to his rolling over for foreign foes, it’s Obama (and not, say, the GOP itself) who’s laid the groundwork for the rise to power of a nativist, proto-fascist demagogue who —

Sorry, just got caught up in the heat of the campaign for a moment. Histrionics notwithstanding, you’re indeed correct, George, that Obama was spotted holding his own umbrella during his recent visit to Cuba. Stateside, this counted as the second-most significant umbrella-related event of Barry’s administration, the first being the time in 2013 when he caught guff on conservative websites for asking two marines to hold umbrellas over the Turkish prime minister during a rainy visit. (Subsequent perusal of regulations revealed that while Corps members must assist the president as requested, umbrella-holding included, uniformed marines may not shelter themselves with umbrellas — if they’re male; female marines, though, are allowed to exercise common sense in the rain.)

By contrast, the Cuban Umbrella Incident didn’t raise many eyebrows — besides yours, I mean — at home. In China, though, it was sort of a big deal: citizens expressed admiration that a world leader, unlike the local apparatchiks, would so humbly carry his own umbrella. They’re not unschooled on the political symbolism of the umbrella, either, which harks back to — you called it — Chamberlain. It seems that for Sir Neville, the umbrella was a bit of an affectation. He carried it everywhere, including when he disembarked the plane in London after his infamous 1938 meeting with Hitler: peace agreement in one hand, brolly in the other, his hapless fate sealed. Thereafter the British opposition party, whenever Chamberlain traveled, made a display of umbrellas, to symbolize the PM’s appeasement. Even Hitler mocked Chamberlain’s accessory, according to an MI5 report; one British diplomat quoted the Führer saying: “If ever that silly old man comes interfering again with his umbrella, I’ll kick him downstairs and jump on his stomach in front of the photographers.”

Thus did the umbrella grow geopolitical legs. By the 1950s, American right-wingers had adopted it as a symbol of American appeasement of foreign powers, such that Richard Nixon, as Eisenhower’s vice president, forbade his aides from carrying any. (This backfired when Ike himself got caught in the rain while giving a speech because nobody had anything on hand to shelter him with.) Historian Edward R. Miller has compiled some midcentury umbrella-related highlights:

Campaigning against Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s opponent in 1952 and 1956, Nixon declared, If the umbrella is the symbol of appeasement, then Adlai Stevenson must go down in history as the Umbrella Man of all time. When the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 and President Kennedy did not send American troops to tear it down, German students, as well as many Americans, sent him umbrellas. Upon returning home after having established new cultural and commercial ties with China in the 1970s, President Richard Nixon was met with umbrella-wielding students, who shared William F. Buckley’s assertion that Nixon had sold out by meeting with the leaders of the Communist dictatorship.

Another umbrella man, a guy named Louie Witt, appears, prominently raising his piece, in the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assassination. Is he sending a signal? Is he an Oswald associate? As with every other element of the assassination, this one’s been debated to death, but Witt’s own explanation before a congressional hearing remains as good as any: he was just a “conservative-type fellow” who was still upset about Chamberlain’s capitulation in Munich. He wasn’t even protesting JFK; he was protesting JFK’s dad, Joseph P. Kennedy, who back in ’38 had been ambassador to Britain.

In the modern era, umbrellas have acquired a new symbolic role in Hong Kong, representing resistance not against appeasement, but against the Chinese government. What started out as protesters shielding themselves from police tear gas has morphed, according to a 2014 NPR dispatch, into the emblem for a movement — it’s known as the “Umbrella Revolution.” In U.S. politics, any political symbolism associated with umbrellas has been all but forgotten — such that the current president’s carrying one is the rare gesture that doesn’t draw cries of Chamberlainism. One suspects that if Obama’s critics were slightly more historically literate, they would’ve been all over it.

Cecil Adams

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