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Hillary saves Obama from another iPod gift disaster

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Politics,Paul Bedard,Washington Secrets

President Obama, mocked during one of his first overseas trips for giving Queen Elizabeth II an iPod, has classed-up his gift-giving with American-made artwork -- and he can thank former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her State Department team for that.

This week, Obama presented the family of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gifts of Judaic art by Bethesda, Md., sculptor Zachary Oxman, tapped by Clinton's department to design gifts the president gives to heads of state.

Why Oxman? He tells Secrets that back in the 1990s, when President Clinton wanted to be the first to light a menorah in the White House, Oxman, then 23, was tapped to provide one. He eventually produced three. One of them ended up in the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., and another was lent to the hit TV show "The West Wing."

The Clintons showed their appreciation by inviting Oxman and his wife to a 1995 Christmas party during which the first family noticed his handmade cuff links. A call from the East Wing followed with a request for cuff links that Hillary would give to the president. "That's one of the gifts she does, custom cuff links," said Oxman, who once drew up a design to commemorate the Dayton Peace Accords on Bosnia.

During the Bush years, he said, "my phone didn't ring," except once when a Bush associate asked Oxman if he could sculpt a small mountain bike for one of the president's biking friends. "I didn't get the job," he said.

Enter Obama and Hillary. While he wasn't called by Clinton herself, Oxman was tapped to sculpt diplomatic gifts when the new administration came in. "Gift giving is very delicate at this level," said Oxman, adding that he is "incredibly flattered" to be among those selected.

In Israel this week, Obama gave Oxman candlesticks, priced at $1,500, to the prime minister's daughter. Netanyahu's two sons received $1,000 bronze Kiddush goblets by Oxman.

"It's not just exchanging gifts, but putting some thought into it," Oxman said of the tradition, noting that the Shabbat candles are typically lighted by the mother of the household.