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Just the Two of Us

By Dana Milbank
Friday, May 18, 2007

For President Bush, the sensation must have been akin to watching his own funeral.

Bush's closest ally, Tony Blair, was on his final visit to the White House before the British prime minister, now deeply unpopular, leaves office. The first British questioner got right to the point about Blair's undoing, asking Bush: "Do you think you're partly to blame?"

"Could be," Bush replied, breezily.

A few years ago, both men were brash and highflying leaders. But in recent days, polls on both sides of the Atlantic have given Bush and Blair matching scores: the support of only 28 percent of their people. Just as the failures in Iraq have weighed down the Bush presidency, so did Blair's unstinting support of Bush and the Iraq war cause his own political demise, after a decade in power.

"In any part of Europe today, if you want to get the easiest round of applause, get up and attack America," Blair said on a bright morning in the Rose Garden. "You can get a round of applause if you attack the president."

"Standing ovation," Bush interjected, to laughter.

"Yes," Blair agreed.

From the British perspective, Blair has been Bush's "poodle," eagerly following his master into Iraq but getting nothing in return on issues including global warming and missile defense. Bush didn't help matters at yesterday's joint news conference by almost immediately referring to Blair as "dogged."

Whatever his role in Blair's woes, the president seemed genuinely disturbed that two British reporters asked why Blair shouldn't leave office sooner than the 40 days he has pledged to remain. "You know, it's interesting," Bush said to a BBC questioner, "like trying to do a tap dance on his political grave, aren't you?"

Only a man with one foot in the political grave would know how that feels.

Six years and three months ago, the president and the prime minister met for the first time at Camp David and instantly proclaimed themselves smitten, even telling reporters they both used Colgate toothpaste. The British leader's bold support for the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks earned him the gratitude of a nation and a raucous ovation before a joint session of Congress.

It was a grayer Blair and a silver-maned Bush who walked from the Oval Office yesterday. Even the Rose Garden appeared uncharacteristically worn: Paint was chipping and peeling above the colonnade, and a couple of the shrubs had turned brown. The normal protocol was lacking. Several American reporters wore sunglasses -- a no-no in Bush world. The front row of British reporters didn't even rise with the crowd when the two leaders approached.

Bush, playing off his slip last week that implied Queen Elizabeth II was alive in 1776, started off with a quip that Blair "has led the British people for a long time -- since 1797."

"It just feels that way," the weary premier said. Blair, having trouble with the sunlight, fixed his face in a grimace. He gripped the lectern with both hands while Bush spoke, as if bracing himself on a bumpy car ride. When Bush called it "a joy having you back here," Blair's lips formed a tight smile.

The Briton was not about to retreat from his special relationship, calling Bush not just "strong" and "a friend" he admired but also "unyielding and unflinching and determined." Delicately, Blair admitted to a "controversial relationship -- at least over in my country. But I've never doubted its importance."

Bush mouthed a "thank you" in his friend's direction. Like Blair, he recited the ritual "no regrets" oath: "I don't regret things about what may or may not have happened over the past five years."

Too late to do any good, the president endeavored to defend his beleaguered friend as a British questioner, from Sky News, asked if he "should go sooner" than his 40 remaining days.

"This man here is the prime minister," Bush felt obliged to point out. "This wasn't like a farewell deal," he added. When the BBC reporter persisted in asking if Blair is "still the right man to be talking to," Bush again reminded the British side that "he happens to be your prime minister, but more importantly, he is a respected man in the international arena. People admire him."

Tom Baldwin, from the Times of London, pointed out to Bush that the Conservative Party leader in Britain "does not want to be seen with you."

Bush looked confused. "Never met him," he confirmed with a shrug.

As the old friends fielded questions, the chants of bullhorn-wielding demonstrators on Pennsylvania Avenue could be heard, faintly, in the Rose Garden. This gave Blair an idea. "I can't make out the words that they're shouting over there, but I bet they're not totally complimentary to either of us," he joked.

"And that's what it's about," Blair continued. "It's about people being free to express their views, and it's about politicians having to face the pressure to justify their decisions, to be punished if the people don't like those decisions."

Blair paused for one more handshake with his friend and political albatross before departing the stage.

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