LONDON (AP) — Obiter dicta. Inconsequential remarks.
With one archaic Latin expression, Boris Johnson on Tuesday dismissed his three decades’ worth of exaggeration and occasional insult, insisting he was fit to represent Britain as it navigates a path out of the European Union. In his maiden news conference as foreign secretary, the surprising choice for top diplomat won cautious support from the U.K.’s most important ally: the United States.
Reading closely from his script, Johnson toned down his typical off-the-cuff candor in a joint news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry. Instead, the former London mayor and key protagonist in last month’s “Brexit” drama sought to emphasize the importance of the U.S.-U.K. “special relationship” and the need for Britain to play an even greater role on the world stage.
But first there was history to deal with.
After President Barack Obama stepped into Britain’s referendum debate in April, lobbying for the “remain” side, Johnson accused the U.S. leader of harboring a part-Kenyan’s “ancestral dislike of the British empire.” He had previously compared Hillary Clinton, a potential successor to Obama, to Lady Macbeth and described her as someone with “dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.”
On Tuesday, Johnson listened to a recitation of his past remarks and said, “I’m afraid there is such a rich thesaurus now of things that I’ve said one way or another through what alchemy I do not know, somehow misconstrued that it would really take me too long to engage in any full-blown itinerary of apology to all concerned.”
Johnson, a former journalist who prides himself on provocation, refused to retract his comments on Obama or Clinton, or any of the other one-liners that have riled leaders and nations in the past.
Johnson won a prize in May for a vulgar poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has likened the 28-nation EU to Adolf Hitler in trying, “by different methods,” to create another super-state. As a columnist, he used a derogatory term for black children and linked Papua New Guinea to “cannibalism and chief-killings.”
But he said Tuesday the focus ought to be on pressing global crises like Syria and Yemen’s civil war: “Those to my mind are far more important than any obiter dicta that you may disinter from 30 years of journalism.” Obiter dicta is a Latin legal term for incidental remarks.
Johnson twice referred to the “crisis in Egypt,” when he meant Turkey, which is recovering from a coup attempt last Friday
Tuesday was Kerry’s second trip to London since the June 23 decision by British voters to leave the EU. He also met new British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Johnson was clearly seeking to start his tenure without incident.
Just months ago, he suggested working with President Bashar Assad to fight the Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria. On Tuesday, he adopted Britain’s long-standing line that Assad must go.
Unlike Johnson’s European allies, still stung by a British “leave” campaign they believed was replete with lies, Kerry backed Johnson — albeit awkwardly.
Recalling a 28-year career in the Senate and his failed 2004 presidential bid, Kerry said: “I have met everyone in the world like Boris Johnson — or not.”
“This man is a very smart and capable man,” Kerry said he learned from a U.S. ambassador in Brussels, a onetime schoolmate of Johnson’s at Oxford University.
“I can live with that,” Johnson quipped.
As Kerry continued, Johnson interjected to laughter: “You can stop there.”
Getting the last word, Kerry left his podium to stand elbow to elbow with Johnson and leaning over, stage-whispered, “It’s called diplomacy, Boris.”
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