- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Blair’s ‘pygmies’

A former British ambassador to the United States compared many of the ministers in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Cabinet to a “crowd of pygmies” in the second installment yesterday of his tell-all memoirs of his years in Washington.

Ambassador Christopher Meyer also told of British officials quivering before Washington leaders; described a dinner at which Hillary Rodham Clinton, then first lady, fell asleep; recounted a dumbstruck Scottish leader in the presence of President Bush; and revealed that Britain’s Prince Charles went hunting in Scotland instead of visiting New York after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“There was a minority of capable ministers, who stood out like Masai warriors in a crowd of pygmies,” he wrote in his book, “D.C. Confidential,” serialized yesterday in London’s Guardian and Daily Mail newspapers.

He cited a 1999 visit by British Home Secretary Jack Straw, who was “mystifyingly tongue-tied in the unthreatening presence of Janet Reno, the attorney general, and Louis Freeh, the director of the FBI.”

He recalled his anxiety over visits by British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who arrived at the British Embassy “like a mastiff with his hackles up, just waiting to be ‘dissed.’”

Mr. Prescott always would insist on meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney to discuss a full range of foreign policy issues.

“The problem was that he never appeared to be sufficiently up on those issues, and he always seemed nervous,” Mr. Meyer wrote.

By contrast, Mr. Cheney and his staff “were a study in poker faces,” he added.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld unnerved British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon by his “intimidating presence,” Mr. Meyer said, adding that trying to “find a common wavelength” between them “was like getting pandas to mate.”

“Hoon got nervous in Rumsfeld’s presence,” he said.

Mr. Meyer also recounted personal stories like his presence at a dinner where American actor Michael Douglas was courting British actress, and now his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, while Mrs. Clinton fell asleep “during a narcoleptic speech” from a visiting British minister.

The ambassador recalled a trip to Washington in April 2001 by Henry McLeish, then the first minister of Scotland, whom he described as “amiably uncharismatic.”

Mr. McLeish “was nearly struck dumb with shock when to his astonishment (and mine, to be frank) a chance remark that I had made to the White House about his visiting Washington led to an invitation to meet President Bush,” Mr. Meyer said.

“As poor Henry twitched and stuttered in the Oval Office, George Bush … genially recounted stories of his time in Scotland as a boy.”

He said Mr. McLeish’s visit for the Scottish-American celebration, National Tartan Day, “caused me all kinds of problems” from senior politicians in London who were jealous that the Scottish leader got such attention. Many demanded similar treatment, he wrote.

“After McLeish’s coup, the sound of spitting from envious Westminster politicians became audible,” Mr. Meyer said. “There are few things harder to handle than a minister who expects access way above his or her pay grade.”

Mr. Meyer told of his shock over the September 11 terrorist attacks and how his wife, Catherine, observed the smoke from the attack on the Pentagon from the roof of the ambassador’s residence.

He and his wife visited the site of the attacks on the World Trade Center a month later in an event that was supposed to have included Prince Charles.

“Prince Charles had been unable to come to New York for the event, much to the chagrin of the organizers,” Mr. Meyer said. “I was told by a deep throat … from the prince’s household that shooting at Balmoral [the queen’s castle in Scotland] had taken precedence.”

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.

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