RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Mitt Romney has begun an overseas trip meant to burnish his foreign policy credentials, but his first day veered severely off-script. His visit to London yesterday offered an opportunity to highlight his experience turning around the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah. Instead, Romney caused a diplomatic incident that snowballed as the day went on. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Mitt Romney's schedule for this trip was meticulously planned to portray Romney as a statesman fluent on the world stage - no formal speeches or unscripted news conferences, just six back-to-back photo ops.
MITT ROMNEY: Well, I'll see a swimming event.
SHAPIRO: But things went astray before Romney even touched down. A British newspaper quoted anonymous Romney aides, saying, quote, "We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special." When people suggested that the quote had racist overtones, the Romney campaign strongly denied it. Then Romney landed in England, and things got worse. In an interview, NBC's Brian Williams asked how Romney expects the Games to go.
(SOUNDBITE OF NBC BROADCAST)
ROMNEY: You know, it's hard to know just how well it will turn out. There were a few things that were disconcerting - stories about the private security firm not having enough people, a supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials. That, obviously, is not something which is encouraging.
SHAPIRO: For any country, putting on the Olympics is a major point of national pride. To Brits, Romney's comments felt like a poke in the eye. The headline on the Guardian newspaper's website read: Mitt Romney's Olympics Gaffe Stuns U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had rolled out the red carpet for Romney, defended his homeland against the slight.
PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active bustling cities anywhere in the world. I mean, of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.
SHAPIRO: The mayor of Salt Lake City was not pleased with that comment. Later in the day, Romney dialed back his criticism of the London Games.
ROMNEY: Of course, there will be errors from time to time, but those are all overshadowed by the extraordinary demonstrations of courage, character and determination by the athletes.
SHAPIRO: Cameron joined in the peace-making effort after meeting with Romney.
CAMERON: Well, what Mitt Romney said to me is that he thought it looked extremely well-organized. The venues look good. The country is well-prepared. He ran a successful Olympic Games in his own country, and I think he's very much looking forward to going to see some of the events here.
SHAPIRO: But by that point, Romney had already become a punching bag and a punch line for London Mayor Boris Johnson. Johnson addressed tens of thousands of people in Hyde Park at the end of the Olympic torch relay.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MAYOR BORIS JOHNSON: There are some people who are coming from around the world who don't yet know about all the preparations we've done to get London ready in the last seven years. I hear there's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we're ready. He wants to know whether we're ready. Are we ready? Are we ready? Yes, we are.
SHAPIRO: Romney's Olympic gaffe was not his only misstep yesterday. After one meeting, he told reporters...
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
ROMNEY: I can only say that I appreciated the insights and perspectives of the leaders of the government here and opposition here, as well as the head of MI6.
SHAPIRO: Romney's meeting with the head of MI6, Britain's spy agency, was not on the public schedule. Such meetings are generally secret, and this slip-up comes just a few days after Romney bashed President Obama for leaking American national security secrets. After Romney revealed that he had met with the head of the MI6, neither the British government nor the Romney campaign would confirm that the meeting took place. And this is only the first stop on Romney's trip. Next up: Israel. Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.