- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2000

Every mother and father who have gone through the anxieties of surviving a teen-ager felt a wave of sympathy for Tony Blair, the British prime minister, when his 16-year-old son Euan was found by police late the other night in London's Leicester Square, drunk and face down in a puddle of his own vomit.This was the kind of story most editors and even broadcasters would treat sympathetically: "There but for the grace of God goes one of our children." It's hard enough raising a teen-ager, and raising one in the public spotlight has got to be a lot harder.It had been a bad week for the prime minister. You could understand (if not forgive) his advisers and spinners for thinking Euan's humiliation was a gift for the father, diverting attention from mistakes of state, and maybe creating a climate of commiseration with the father of a teen-ager."The whole thing is grisly for Euan," one Laborite told The Times of London candidly, "but the second I heard the news, I knew it was good for us."It didn't quite turn out that way.Expressions of sympathy quickly turned to criticism for the way the prime minister exploited the problem for political advantage. He added several "spontaneous" passages to a speech he delivered to black church leaders in Brighton.

"The values you represent are the values we all share respect, tolerance, the family, trying to bring up children properly." The crowd tittered, not sure whether to laugh or nod affirmatively. The prime minister, with the timing and performance skills approaching those of his pal Bill Clinton, sensed the urgent attention of his audience. He ad-libbed a little more.

"That bit was written a short time ago, but, you know … being a prime minister can be a tough job, but I always think that being a parent is probably tougher. Sometimes you don't always succeed but the family to me is more important than anything else."

The church leaders erupted with a standing ovation, punctuated with the cry of "Hallelujah," their gratitude for being patronized by such a celebrity. When a baby in the back of the hall cried out, the prime minister, the father of infant Leo, responded as if on cue: "I feel right at home." If the baby was a plant, a spinner earned his pence for the day.

The speech was a tour de force that, after the public thought about it for 24 hours, began to sour. The prime minister had gone too far in reviving the memory of his son's humiliation to enhance the father's image, and the public no longer felt disposed to ignore the son's problem or to treat it gingerly. The father who should have put to rest references to his son's drunkenness, to protect the boy's feelings, instead restored a dying story to the front pages. Suddenly it didn't sound so much like the family was more important than politics.

"Schadenfreude is a nasty, spiteful emotion," wrote columnist Minette Marrin in the London Daily Telegraph, defining the German word for taking pleasure in another's misfortune. But she confessed that schadenfreude was her first emotion on hearing of the tarnish on the Blair's "holy family image."

The Euan incident inevitably served as a reminder that in 1997 the newly elected Labor government announced plans to compel parents of young offenders to take "parenting lessons" to curb teen-age crime. Were Mr. and Mrs. Blair now ready to be tutored in how to keep a child from underage drinking?

But what really steamed the Brits was the fresh remembrance of Mr. Blair's proposal, made while he was in Germany, for punishing the drunk and disorderly soccer hooligans who have given the English a bad name all over Europe: He suggested that police seize the offenders and march them off to ATM machines to pay a fine on the spot. Overlooking logic for a moment, the proposal would bash basic civil liberties, and it was the cops who shot down the idea.

His growing cadre of critics suggest that the prime minister suffers from "late baby syndrome." He and his wife are at the height of their professional careers, and infant Leo needs a dad and a mom more than he needs a prime minister or the brilliant barrister his mom is said to be.

"He and Cherie keep having the baby in bed with them, and as soon as he sniffles that's the end of their sleep," one close friend told a London newspaper. The prime minister, who was much mocked for considering taking paternity leave for Leo's birth lately hasn't been himself. He has flubbed his lines on several occasions. When he wanted to honor the Australian prime minister, he referred to "American heroes" instead of "Australian heroes." In another passage he boasted of his dedication to "spin, not substance." (Freudian slip?)

Maybe he ought to take paternity leave after all. Dad, not the boys, needs a rest.

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