During the debate before the war with Iraq, White House officials noted that when their boss and Tony Blair answered the same questions, the Prime Minister's responses always seemed so much more honed and complete. And it wasn't just the accent. In the future, quipped an aide, the President should just follow his counterpart by saying, "Ditto."
After Blair's visit here last week, Bush might want to give him some kind of cabinet post for that purpose. Though his six-hour stop was the diplomatic equivalent of a drive-through, Blair threw a lifeline to the President, reminding Americans in a way that Bush has been unable to, that the world is better with Saddam Hussein out of power and that, in the age of terror, America is the only nation that can lead.
Given the President's recent troubles, his aides weren't worried that Bush might suffer by comparison. He has finally started facing the kind of hard questioning about the case he made for war that greets Blair with his morning coffee. Things got so desperate for Bush last week that at one point, in an effort to reiterate the underlying causes for war, he wound up inventing a false one. Saddam Hussein didn't allow weapons inspectors into his country, he said, and therefore the U.S. was forced to go to war. If Blair had made the same charge, he would have been heckled into the floorboards during Question Time.
He nearly was anyway, but when he arrived at the Capitol he was treated to America's upside-down version of that ritual, in which members of Congress interrupt only to show how much they fancy you and they fancy Blair a lot. His arrival was greeted with whistles and applause. Eager faces full of laughter greeted his smallest quip, but more impressive were the church-service nods that broke out among the crowd when he talked about America's place in history. "Why me? And why us?" he asked in the voice of an American Everyman. "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."
[an error occurred while processing this directive]Blair's American constituency extends far beyond Washington. According to one recent poll, 83% of Americans trust Blair to do the right thing regarding world affairs, putting him above all other world leaders including Bush, who comes second. At home in the U.K., a recent poll showed only 31% of Britons still express trust in their Prime Minister. But in the U.S. Blair plays to both camps. For conservatives, he is the ultimate ally. Liberals cling to Blair as the only one who can temper Bush's starchy unilateralism and keep America from piling up enemies around the world. Comparing the country's similar expectations of the Secretary of State, a White House adviser puts it plainly: "He's Powell with an accent."
When the two leaders joined for their press conference at the White House, reporters tried to drive wedges between them, but Blair would not budge. Even on the controversial issue of British citizens being held as unlawful combatants, Blair reacted as if it were an easily adjudicated matter among friends. And his attitude paid off. (The next day the White House announced it is suspending legal proceedings against all Britons being held at Guantánamo Bay until officials from both countries discuss the cases.) For Bush, that even temper demonstrates far more than grace under pressure. "I've heard it called cojones," says a senior White House official. "Blair's got the fortitude. He's a man of principle and character. He's never wavered. The President really respects that."
After their meeting Bush and Blair shared a helicopter out of town. Bush headed for the repose of his Crawford, Texas, ranch; Blair to a tour of the Far East, where his upbeat mood was shattered by news that the British weapons expert at the center of a row over whether the government manipulated prewar intelligence had committed suicide. Blair will need those cojones when he gets back to London.