Obama: looking for soft power

My phone rings, and a voice says: is this Bernard Charles Ecclestone, Supremo of Formula One? Please aahdentifaah yerself. Yes, I say, I am he. Who wants to know? But the voice says: hold on for the Prezdint of the Yoownaahded States of ‘Merica. Then nothing. All I hear is a vague buzzing noise, like you hear on board of an aeroplane.

“Hello Mr Ecclestone,” he says “Greetings from Air Force One. Can I call you Bernie?” Well, I say, if you must. Most people call me Mr E, but I guess from one Supremo to the other it should be all right. “Great! And I’m Barry, by the way.”

Pleased to meet you, Barry. How can I help you?

“How difficult is it to drive an F1 car?” he asks. “You see, I ‘ve recently started working on my foreign policy, what with healthcare and the mid term elections out of the way, and I couldn’t help but notice that driving an F1 car is becoming an accepted pastime. How difficult is it?”

Well, I say, people spend years working their way up from kart racing, all the way through the feeder series. Some never make it at all, it’s only for a selected few. May I ask, have you ever driven stick shift?

“No,” he says. ““D” for forward, “R” for backward, is what I always say. What’s a stick shift?”

It’s a little lever that moves you through the gears – when your car goes faster you go in higher gear, then you can go faster again. This is important in racing. “Ah,” he says. “Sorry, no. American cars don’t have them. Is it important? If so, I guess I’ve just found yet another reason why I had to step in to save the US automobile industry from self-destruction.”

I decide to let that one go. But never having driven a manual gearbox makes operating an F1 car an even more tricky affair than it normally is. Why does Mr President – “It’s Barry” – sorry, Barry, why d’you want to know?

Soft power,” he says. “Vladimir’s discovering it, and I can’t be outdone. Military power’s so 20th century. Been there, done that. Soft power is what it’s all about. Vlad goes bare-chested, I go bare-chested. Vlad shows off a poodle, I grab the nearest dog. And now he’s upping his gaming by driving a race car.”

All good and well, Mr President. But I must warn you, these are not toys. The last American who could properly drive one was Peter Revson in 1974. Why don’t you try NASCAR?

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