The Which Blair Project

The British prime minister in the context most familiar to Americans  --  alongside President Bush.
The British prime minister in the context most familiar to Americans -- alongside President Bush. (By Larry Downing -- Reuters)
By Tina Brown
Thursday, May 5, 2005

Until this week, Brits I spoke to in London seemed more excited about the reunion of Cream at Royal Albert Hall than about the election that will decide whether Tony Blair and Labor get a mandate for another five years. Being told every day that Blair would win a big majority cast the national mood into one of surly indifference.

It all suddenly changed when leaked memos on Iraq seemed to confirm that Blair had promised Bush he would go to war to depose Saddam Hussein long before he had come clean with the British people.

All at once everyone's electoral adrenaline was flowing again. Brit friends started to speculate excitedly again about WMDs and U.N. resolutions and how much all this would shrink the number of Labor's seats in the House of Commons -- a strange kind of excitement when you consider that nearly every one of them is a Labor voter and most are sticking with Blair.

For an expatriate Brit there's a dizzying cognitive dissonance in the disparity between how Americans and Brits see the PM. Where Americans see a leader of decency, stature, eloquence and authentic intelligence, Brits see a politician of shallowness, dishonesty and grating sanctimony. When his name comes up in London the reaction is road rage.

Whose perception is clearer? Is America blinded by Blair's performance skills to what the Brits see as his duplicity over Iraq? Or does geographical distance serve the same wisdom-enhancing function as historical distance? Do we get the quintessence of the real Blair his own people are too blinded by contemptuous proximity to see?

The thing about foreign leaders is that from afar they have no context. No one here could really understand why Gorbachev went down. I mean, Gorby ended Communist rule, didn't he? He was a natural on TV, wasn't he? Plus, he had that great Harry Potter head flash. So why didn't the Russians love him?

Tony Blair's big asset here is that the only time most Americans ever see him is at a press conference standing next to President Bush. First you get one of the president's They Hate Freedom / We're Makin' Good Progress riffs that leave you wondering what planet he is on. Then comes the prime minister with a defense of the war that's so intelligently nuanced it comes off as both cognizant of the issue's agonizing complexity and respectful of people who disagree. He does transparency better than anyone except Clinton.

Stateside Bush haters have never extended their dislike to Blair because he reminds them of what they liked about Clinton, minus the sleaze factor. Whereas to Brits, the retrofitting of a war rationale to a foregone conclusion dictated by Washington is sleaze squared.

All the same, Blair will win a third term today because the British economy is roaring along and Blair shares the ticket, as it were, with the able if taciturn chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown. The Conservative Party is infinitely more hapless and directionless than the Democrats here. The Tories can hyperventilate only about lying because they, too, voted for the war.

Serious students of politics also have to take into account the eternal boarding-school nature of British public life, which guarantees that cruel nicknames always stick. Tony Blair's unctuous sincerity gets him lampooned as the Vicar of St. Albion's, but Tory leader Michael Howard fares worse. His Romanian ancestry, along with a colleague's famous remark that "there is something of the night about him," has stuck him forever with Transylvania jokes and Dracula canines. (It didn't help that his most conspicuous celebrity endorser was the star of the old Dracula movies, Christopher Lee.)

Why Blair followed Bush into Iraq is not something that can be explained in the end by leaked memos on war contingencies and lawyers being asked to dance on the head of a pin to justify the legality of invasion. There is no doubt in my mind that when Blair came to New York in September 2001 to speak at a memorial service for the British victims in the World Trade Center attack he was as profoundly affected as President Bush by what his fellow Brits saw only on TV screens -- a vision of hell in those twisted ruins. Only Blair himself knows the psychological component that influenced his deeply unpopular decision on Iraq, the complex mixture of genuine humanitarian concerns and belief that the world would be a less safe place if England allied itself with a dithering Europe and isolated itself from its greatest historical ally. There was also, perhaps, a perverse desire to take a truly lonely stand, one that would shake off the demeaning narrative of a people-pleaser guided only by spin. In fact, the real question the documents raise is whether electorates, so conditioned these days by PR, can recognize and tolerate the messy agonies of policymaking as it really happens.

Blair, with the help of his enemies within, has certainly put that to the test. Successful leaders from Caesar to Churchill have always known how to self-dramatize. The modern media age has simply magnified the need for that skill and put it in close-up. Blair's so-called masochism strategy -- in which he has served himself up to irate members of the British public to be hectored and screamed at -- has been a bruising theatrical tour de force, the Passion of the Tony.

Everyone is betting that if Labor's majority is much reduced, Blair will either choose or be forced to resign or hand off to Gordon Brown after 18 months. My own bet is that his majority will be big enough to let him stay much longer. Blair's moral energy makes him extraordinarily tough. And the only thing Cherie Blair dislikes more than living in the poky quarters of No. 10 Downing Street is the thought of vacating it for the man who lives at No. 11.

Whatever happens today, Blair's ultimate reputation will remain poised somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, waiting for something only history -- not geography, and not the voters -- can settle: how Iraq will turn out.

2005Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company