LONDON – For a couple steadfast allies, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron aren't always in sync.
The two leaders, both lefties, had their hands full playing table tennis with a couple of London school boys Tuesday. The game was part of a visit to a school in the Southwark neighborhood of London that specializes in math and performing arts.
Both leaders doffed their jackets and rolled up their sleeves. Obama, playing the diplomat, offered a defense for Cameron's play: "Tennis is his sport." Then, reacting to an aggressively missed shot by the prime minister, he suggested not so helpfully: "You just don't know your own strength."
Their competitors, two students in their early teens, used a variety of spin serves to unnerve their opponents.
Obama at one point observed with amusement that one of the boys was playing with his hand in his pocket.
Eventually Obama and Cameron got a rhythm, winning a few points. But it was an uphill match.
"They're up five?" Obama asked at one point. "More than five? Goodness?"
Reporters were ushered out before the game ended.
Ahead of the pingpong, Obama and Cameron visited a science classroom where they were shown a design-winning pliable plastic box. When the teacher suggested finding a sponsor to help develop and market the design, Cameron proposed a British investor. Obama had his own mischievous idea.
"Donald Trump in the United States," the president chimed in. "I have some connection with him."
A bit of honey, a pair of horseshoes and a trove of memorabilia exchanged hands between the president and the royals at Buckingham Palace, a sampling of the ceremonial gift giving that is a tradition during visits by heads of state. It all proved that you can find presents for those who have everything.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, gave Queen Elizabeth II a collection of rare mementoes and photographs in a handmade leather-bound album that highlighted the 1939 visit to the United States by her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
The gift was meant to strike a highly personal note with the queen, who is said to have been very close to her parents.
The Obamas gave Prince Philip, a fan of equestrian sports, a set of Fell Pony bits and shanks inscribed with the presidential seal. Fell ponies are a horse breed native to the uplands of northwest England. They also gave him horseshoes worn by the recently retired champion carriage horse Jamaica. The horse is famous for having been saved from the slaughterhouse and rising through the ranks to become the 2008 United States Equestrian Federation Horse of the Year.
For Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, the Obamas assembled a selection of plants, seedlings and seeds from George Washington's Mount Vernon, from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and from the White House, presenting it along with jars of honey from the White House beehive.
The queen gave the Obamas a bound album of copies of letters from the royal archives exchanged by U.S. presidents and Queen Victoria, dating from an 1834 letter by John Quincy Adams to one from President William McKinley in 1897.
Other gift ideas for the president? How about spell check and a calendar.
Visiting Westminster Abbey to lay a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Obama and the first lady had occasion to sign the distinguished visitors' book. But the president appeared to have his election year in mind, dating his entry in the book May 24, 2008.
"It is a great privilege to commemorate our common heritage and common sacrifice," he wrote. But he paused to check his spelling of "commemorate" with the Dean of Westminster before completing his message.
A Westminster Abbey spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with the abbey's policies, confirmed that Obama wrote the wrong date. She said it would not be erased and would remain that way in the book.
It was none other than the queen who personally showed the president and first lady the elegant, six-room suite at Buckingham Palace where they would spend the night after a state dinner at the palace in their honor.
There's history in the rooms, too. They were last used by Prince William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, on their wedding night last month.
"It may not be the same bed. It is the same suite," said one palace aide, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
In his toast at Tuesday's lavish state dinner, Obama had warm personal words for the queen.
He recalled a June 2009 trip to London by First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, Sasha and Malia. The girls toured Big Ben, the famous clock tower, as well as Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and Harry Potter movie set and, in a special treat, they received special permission for a guided tour of Buckingham Palace.
Obama, addressing the queen, said he brought warm greetings from his girls, "who adored you even before you let them ride on a carriage on the palace grounds."