Tony Blair Brings Down The House
U.S. Congress Is Smitten By British Prime Minister
By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2003; Page C01
He was the fourth British prime minister to stand in the rostrum of the House of Representatives, and by the time he was done, the lawmakers of the upstart nation had interrupted him with applause 31 times. The Republicans had erupted with their peculiar club cheer -- whoo! whoo! whoo! There was much leaping to the feet, and with so many of the women favoring vivid suits of coral, pink and emerald green, and quite a few of the men wearing ties in those very same colors, the Capitol dwellers seemed almost to pulse upward out of their leather chairs.
By the time Tony Blair finished, the assembled members seemed ready to weep with gratitude.
"I don't know that I have ever heard a speech that better charts the values of freedom-loving people and challenges them to embrace their best qualities," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "It was truly inspirational. It was magnificent, frankly, and I was very moved by it."
Asked if it seemed unusual that a foreign leader would be the one to so excite, she said, "Well, yes."
The last time the members gathered together for any address, of course, was on Jan. 28, and the man in the rostrum of the House was the president of the United States, delivering his State of the Union address. That was a lofty speech, too, full of ideals and noble purpose, which has, at least for now, been reduced to an increasingly fierce debate over a 16-word sentence: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
That controversy hung over Blair's quick visit to Washington yesterday; at issue is whether both governments may have relied on less-than-definitive intelligence when arguing that weapons of mass destruction were an imminent threat that had to be removed by war. No such weapons have been found. Later in the day, a pointed question about the faulty claim regarding uranium was the first one Bush faced during an appearance with Blair.
The president responded testily but dodged the question.
Blair comes off like a statesman, not a brush-clearing cowboy. There is a humility, a sort of Anglican priestliness, almost, to the way in which he speaks. "I'm deeply touched by that warm and generous welcome," he began at the joint meeting of Congress. "That's more than I deserve," and here he paused and gave a slight smile, "and more than I'm used to, quite frankly."
Part of this ability is the elegant upper-crust British accent, of course, which could confer distinction on the tawdriest of phrases. Part of it is the words he chooses. Instead of speaking of "bad people" and "darn good intelligence," words like "perforce" and "risible" roll off his tongue. He stands perfectly straight, his hands sometimes open like a supplicant, a fist sometimes brought softly to touch his chest.
President Bush is a leaner, a jabber of fingers. He gets mad to make his point; Blair gets thoughtful. These two political partners have different public styles, and they can use them to appeal to different constituencies.
Blair brought collegiality across the aisle. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said the prime minister gave a "great speech" and added, "I loved watching all those Republicans cheer a liberal." To which Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) replied, "If he's a liberal, I'm a commie."
Blair seems unable to utter a colloquialism in public address. But, perhaps to assure the rowdier breakaways that the Brits are not so closed down as their reputation suggests, the prime minister even inserted a joke of slightly questionable taste into his speech. He said he recalled a European minister suggesting that the solution to environmentally sustainable prosperity was to double the tax on American gas.
"Your president gave him a most eloquent look. It reminded me of the first leader of my party, Keir Hardie, in the early part of the 20th century. He was a man who used to correspond with the Pankhursts, the great campaigners for women's votes. And shortly before the election, June 1913, one of the Pankhurst sisters wrote to Hardie saying she had been studying Britain carefully and there was a worrying rise in sexual immorality linked to heavy drinking. So she suggested he fight the election on the platform of votes for women, chastity for men and prohibition for all. He replied saying, 'Thank you for your advice, the electoral benefits of which are not immediately discernible.' "
The dry British humor brought a raised eyebrow from a few of the women senators on the floor, and much hearty laughter from the men.
And then the humor vanished, and Blair headed for the close. Acknowledging that the fight against terrorism is hard and that there are those Americans who might wonder, "Why me? And why us?" he added, "The only answer is, 'Because destiny put you in this place in history, in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do.' "
As Blair threaded his way out of the room, with that giant eagle etched into the skylight above, even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld looked happy.
In his perfectly tailored charcoal suit, Blair headed off in a motorcade of gleaming black cars for the White House. On the way, ever the mannerly politician, he changed his white shirt and navy tie for a baby blue shirt and matching blue tie. One may be prime minister, but one presumably does not meet one's host in the White House with any spots of bother under the arm.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company