Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s memoir “A Journey: My Political Life” is a political biography of unusual interest.
As a book, it’s unusual because he wrote it himself, which makes this volume unique among the English-speaking world’s recent political autobiographies. It also gives “A Journey” a disarming frankness that a professional collaborator almost certainly would have manicured away, along with anecdotes that are unintentionally self-revealing.
There are also the extraordinary circumstances surrounding its publication. Blair reportedly received an estimated $7.5-million advance for his memoirs, but advance interest appeared slight. Then came the announcement that he will donate all proceeds to a charity for wounded British military veterans. Amazon UK now says “A Journey” appears set to become its bestselling political memoir ever.
Clearly this guy did not successfully fight three British general elections without a flair for getting attention.
The book’s nearly simultaneous launch in Britain and the United States last week also signals Blair’s desire to be regarded as a trans-Atlantic figure. Blair expresses not only his deep regard for Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but also the fact that, during his 10 years in office, he “came to love America.” His memoir, he writes, “is a story about America, as well as, evidently a history of my time as British PM.”
Given the donation of this memoir’s royalties to Britain’s Iraq war casualties, a great deal of attention is likely to focus on Blair’s second thoughts concerning those conflicts. To put it concisely, he doesn’t have any. “I have often reflected as to whether I was wrong,” he writes. “I ask you to reflect as to whether I may have been right.”
He continues to argue, convincingly in this reader’s mind, that the Afghan action was a war of necessity to uproot the perpetrator of 9/11 — al-Qaida — and its Taliban sponsor.
In the case of Iraq, he argues that after 9/11 it simply was irresponsible to take the chance that any government sharing any part of the terrorists’ views or goals wouldn’t obtain weapons of mass destruction, and that the intelligence agencies reported Saddam Hussein was about to do that. That was wrong, he admits, but insists there was no way to know that at the time.
One of the things that emerges from Blair’s account of that period is his genuine affection and regard for Bush, whose calm, focus, lack of pretense and security in his own skin the prime minister found particularly impressive. He praises him, as well, for “integrity” and “political courage.”
Dick Cheney, who “was unremittingly hard line,” struck him otherwise. “(I)t’s virtually impossible to have a rational discussion about him,” Blair writes. “To those on the left, he is, of course, an uncomplicated figure of loathing. Even for the middle ground, they tend to reach for the garlic and crucifixes. You have to go pretty far to the right to find Dick’s natural constituency.”
Throughout this memoir, Blair adeptly uses Britain’s royals as a rhetorical foil, and the anecdotes involving them doubtless will be crowd-pleasers among Americans. Queen Elizabeth is rather “shy,” though on their first meeting she put Blair firmly in his place by noting that he was her “10th prime minister” and that her first had been “Winston, but that was before you were born.”
Prince Charles comes across a vague and distracted nebbish, “a curious mixture of the traditional and the radical” who at one point became alarmed over his belief that a deputy prime minister’s posture while drinking tea reflected class antagonism. Princess Diana, by contrast, was “the essence of an era,” a “radical combination of royalty and normality” and the embodiment of all that New Labor wished to convey about itself. There is a detailed discussion of his relationship with Diana — more extensive than many probably realized — and a recitation of the now fairly familiar events surrounding his intervention in the Windsors’ response to Diana’s tragic death.