- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A JOURNEY: MY POLITICAL LIFE
By Tony Blair
Knopf, $35, 700 pages

“On 2 May 1997, I walked into Downing Street as PM for the first time,” writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in this engaging and far-ranging memoir. “I had never held office, not even as the most junior of junior ministers. It was my first and only job in government.”

It was a job that Mr. Blair would hold for an eventful decade, personally involved in mediating some of its most notable crises - Kosovo, Lebanon, Northern Ireland. But he’ll be best remembered for his role in the war in Iraq, and the special relationship he developed with George Bush in prosecuting that war. In spirit, that relationship was much like that that existed between Roosevelt and Churchill, Reagan and Thatcher. But in the light of real politics, it engendered a degree of ideological hatred that may require a political generation to abate.

But Mr. Blair makes no apologies. With Sept. 11, the die was cast. As he said in a broadcast to his nation on that night: “This is not a battle between the United States of America and terrorism, but between the free and democratic world and terrorism. We, therefore, here in Britain stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy, and we, like them, will not rest until this evil is driven from our world.”

From then on, it was shoulder to shoulder with his new and somewhat unlikely ally, George W. Bush: “I had come to like and admire George. … He had genuine integrity and as much political courage as any leader I ever met. … You can disagree with him on Iraq (which I didn’t) or on other issues (which I did), and still accept he sincerely believed in spreading freedom and democracy. He was … a true idealist.”

As was, Mr. Blair believes, Dick Cheney: “To those on the left he is … an uncomplicated figure of loathing. Even for the middle ground, they tend to reach for the garlic and crucifixes. My take on him was different. … He believed, in essence, that the U.S. was genuinely at war; that the war was one with terrorist and rogue states that supported them; that it stemmed from a guiding ideology that was a direct threat to America; and that therefore the only way of defeating it was head-on, with maximum American strength, with the object of destroying the ideology and allowing democracy to flourish in its stead.”

In large part, Mr. Blair agrees: “It is one struggle. Our enemy has an ideology. It does threaten us. The ultimate answer is in the spread of democracy and freedom. It is even possible to conceive of this … as being a progressive position, certainly where removing someone like Saddam was concerned.”

A strong position, and there’s no doubt it cost him personally and politically. Had he recanted, he’d probably have been named the EU’s president of Europe. But no regrets: “I am unable to satisfy the desire even of some of my supporters, who would like me to say: it was a mistake but one made in good faith. Friends opposed to the war think I’m being obstinate; others, less friendly, think I’m delusional. To both I may say: keep an open mind.”

Mr. Blair has done something very few American politicians or few people of any note who routinely churn out books ever do these days - he has, quite obviously, written his memoir himself. As he says in his acknowledgments, “l wrote out each word on hundreds of note pads;” and he’s done so in a conversational and highly personal style, often touching on subjects off-limits to our ghosted politicians.

On the fox-hunting ban that caused a huge political controversy in England: “If I’d proposed solving the pension problem by compulsory euthanasia for every fifth pensioner I’d have got less trouble for it.”

Nor would any ghosted American politician ever venture to explain how and why political types stray (wonks discover the birds and bees); or admit to a suspicious fondness for strong waters. (“Stiff whisky or G&T before dinner, couple of glasses of wine or even half a bottle with it. So not excessively excessive. But I was aware it had become a prop.”)

A good editor might have been able to shorten some of overly long discussions of the Labor Party he reformed and de-Marxified, and the machinations of its once-proletarian grandees. And there are several disappointing portraits of world leaders like Vladimir Putin, Nicolas Sarkozy and Bill Clinton, whose aberrations, Mr. Blair suggests, surely with intended disingenuousness, resulted from his “inordinate interest in and curiosity about people.”

But quibbles aside, this is a strongly written and refreshing book, informed by solid experience and an agile mind. Unlike most of the ghosted memoirs we’ve become accustomed to, it moves. And in this age of turgid and pleonastic political prose, that’s a welcome rarity.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

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