- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

More than a few Americans would be eager to vote for Tony Blair if he could run for the U.S. presidency. Charming, handsome, smart, and persuasive, the “New Labor” prime minister always seems to have the right word for the occasion, whether it’s the death of Princess Diana or the September 11 attacks (only Colin Powell in the current administration can hold a candle to Mr. Blair).

Philip Stephens’ book Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader (Viking, $25.95, 288 pages) was written for Americans wanting to understand this extraordinary Briton who has become known for taking courageous stands because “it’s the right thing to do.”

Think of Kosovo, where Mr. Blair advocated military action to end Slobodan Milosevic’s tyranny; Sierra Leone, where he sent British troops to end the civil war; Northern Ireland, where he patiently helped broker a peace agreement; the Middle East, where he’s determined to resolve the intractable Arab-Israeli problem — not to mention Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

Philip Stephens, associate editor of the Financial Times, does an excellent job of explaining how Mr. Blair managed to attain so much influence beyond British shores while becoming the longest-serving Labor Party prime minister in Britain.

Mr. Blair’s self-confidence is rooted in a warm, middle-class family background — his father was a conservative lawyer — and excellent education at a school where, he once told an interviewer, “respect for others, courtesy, giving up your seat for the elderly, saying please and then thank you” were emphasized.

These values were reinforced by his mother, who “would apologize on his behalf to the teacher” if he misbehaved at school.

Mr. Blair has carried these values into public life, where, whatever his faults, he is renowned for his courtesy, devotion to family, and deep religious faith — the last an anomaly in Britain, where his aides prevented him from adding “God bless you” to close his address to the nation at the time of the invasion of Iraq.

All of which may help explain how he has managed to establish and maintain rapport with so many world leaders, including such opposites as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Mr. Blair is a multilateralist who is convinced that the security of the West depends on an effective international alliance and that the transatlantic alliance is essential to Britain’s health.

He is also a risk-taker who is quick to take advantage of opportunities — as when, at age 41, he grasped the leadership of his party after the 55-year-old John Smith died of a heart attack in May 1994.

Gordon Brown, the senior partner in the two-man project to modernize the party, was elbowed out of the way and today remains chancellor of the exchequer.

This book is a well-rounded synthesis of what makes Tony Blair tick and what he’s accomplished, domestically as well as internationally. It’s hard not to envy the Brits their man of the hour.

• • •

Considering the hundreds of books devoted to Great Helmsman Mao Tse-tung, it is remarkable that so little has been written about his longtime antagonist Chiang Kai-shek, who came within an ace of unifying China in the 1930s, and, in failing, condemned millions of his countrymen to Mao’s social experiments.

This deficiency has now been met by British journalist Jonathan Fenby in an exceptionally readable biography, Chiang Kai-shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost (Carroll & Graf, $30, 505 pages, illus.).

Chiang was never more than a soldier. Born in a peasant village, he got his only formal education as a military cadet in Japan. But Chiang was a nationalist — offended by the unequal treaties that gave foreign powers control over China’s ports — and in the early 1920s he associated himself with the independence movement led by Sun Yat-sen.

At first Chiang cooperated with the Communists against the growing Japanese threat. In 1927, however, he purged the Communists from the Kuomintang Party, initiating a long confrontation that would end with the overthrow of Chiang’s government and its exile to Taiwan.

Chiang kept the warlords off balance through a mix of intimidation and favors. Because loyalty rather than ability was the first requisite for government service, he surrounded himself with mediocrities.

Chiang enjoyed the support of much of China’s urban elite, and his marriage of convenience to the Wellesley-educated Mai-ling Soong allied Chiang with some of China’s most powerful families. But Chiang was too aloof and erratic to be a popular leader.

Chiang was convinced that although the Japanese must be expelled from northern China, the long-term threat to his hegemony was from the Communists. But the warlords had their own agendas, and Chiang’s armies often had to live off the land of the very peasants whose support they required.

Although Chiang came close to unifying China during the 1930s, decades of war brought inflation and graft that discredited his regime.

Chiang Kai-shek was no charmer, and at times was as brutal as his Communist adversaries. But given his formidable enemies, the Japanese and the Communist armies, it is not clear whether a more gifted leader would have produced a different result.

• • •

If you take your biographies by the pound, Robert Caro’s ongoing opus on Lyndon Johnson (three volumes to date, all pre-presidential) is the front-runner. But Boston University scholar Robert Dallek has now produced the best single-volume LBJ biography, a condensation of his two-volume work, in Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President (Oxford University Press, $30, 396 pages, illus.).

His approach is as evenhanded as one can be while dealing with a highly controversial president who was, in turn, intimidating and insecure, compassionate and crude.

LBJ took an early dislike to John F. Kennedy, calling him a “whippersnapper” who “never said a word of importance in the Senate and never did a thing. But somehow … he managed to create the image of himself as a shining intellectual.”

Mr. Dallek sees Johnson and Bobby Kennedy as born enemies: “They were alley fighters, knee in the groin, below-the-belt punchers, hell-bent on winning at almost any cost.”

As for Vietnam, Johnson was too intent on avoiding defeat to develop an exit strategy; he also refused to believe that he had led the nation into a stalemate that might prove impossible to break.

A political casualty of Vietnam was Hubert Humphrey, who had energetically backed Johnson’s “Great Society” legislation. Even after Humphrey had established himself as the leader for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, Johnson considered him “soft” on Vietnam, and offered only tepid support.

When an aide urged Johnson to campaign for Humphrey in several key states, Johnson refused. “You know that Nixon is following my policies more closely than Humphrey,” he said.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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