For years, presidents and presidential hopefuls have gone abroad to cast themselves as knowledgeable on world affairs, counting on friendly receptions wherever they go as a respite from the slings and arrows they routinely encounter in campaigning at home.
They used to tour what was known as "the 3-I League" — for Ireland, Italy and Israel — in a naked appeal to three of the more prominent ethnic constituencies here, particularly in the Democratic Party. How many votes they got in November for their wanderings was hard to determine, but off they went anyway.
Now goes Republican presumptive nominee Mitt Romney with his variation of stops in Britain, Poland and Israel, about which the Irish and the Italians may feel snubbed. But times change, except in the latter destination, where it seems there will always be an Arab-Israeli conflict toward which American politicians must genuflect in favor of Tel Aviv.
If there figured to be any safe political ground for Mr. Romney on his little overseas gambit, it was Old Blighty. U.S.-British ties have been long and strong at least back to the War of 1812, cemented in the World War II partnership that turned back Hitler, starting even before the American entry after Pearl Harbor.
In 1940, FDR cut a deal swapping 50 old Navy destroyers for rights to operate naval bases in the Caribbean and Bermuda. And in January 1941, he spirited through Congress the lend-lease program that sent planes and other military equipment to help combat the Nazi aerial blitz of the Battle of Britain.
Mr. Romney, in choosing to kick off his trip in London, site of this year's Summer Olympic Games, may have hoped to tap into his own experience in running the Winter Games in Salt Lake City, to much acclaim then. But amid fierce traffic and security snarls, he violated a cardinal principle of American globe-trotting by offering negative observations about the local difficulties. Even before arriving in London, he called the local difficulties "disconcerting," adding it was "hard to know just how (the Olympics) will turn out."
His hosts, British Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, didn't hesitate to throw more cold water on Mr. Romney's arrival. Mr. Cameron observed of his guest's stewardship of the 2000 Games in Utah: "Of course, it's easier if you hold an Olympics Games in the middle of nowhere." Mr. Johnson taunted to a Hyde Park crowd: "I hear there's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we are ready. Are we ready? ... Yes, we are!"
To make matters worse, some unidentified Romney aide had, in making reference to the "Anglo-Saxon heritage," clumsily added that "the White House didn't fully appreciate the shared history we had." Not surprisingly, if a bit overwrought, Obama supporters jumped on the comment as disparaging of the first African-American president.
In this enlightened journalistic era of running with unattributed sources speaking for favored candidates, Mr. Romney got burned again as he struggled to recover from his own verbal gaffes. He even played the homeboy card when reminded that his great-great grandfather hailed from Preston in Northern England. "I'm a guy from Great Britain," he said, throwing in that "I married a girl from Wales," whose grandfather was a Welsh coal miner.
Thus has Mr. Romney's trip abroad in search of foreign-policy credibility already served to export that growing diversion of American presidential politics — mindless trivia. It's fed first by thoughtless and careless candidate observations that are then seized upon by the new media practice of reporting first and checking later, if at all.
The Telegraph of London bitingly judged: "Mitt Romney is perhaps the only politician who could start a trip that was supposed to be a charm offensive by being utterly devoid of charm and mildly offensive."
Back home, thanks to the impossibility these days of a candidate going abroad in a cocoon, Mr. Romney's demeanor in London may seem par for the rocky course that his campaign has navigated en route to his nomination in Tampa late next month — none too soon. He might have been better off sticking to the old 3-I League, but with his penchant for putting his foot in his mouth, maybe not.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.