From our visits to Washington, we had got to know Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate for president in 2000, and his wife, Tipper, reasonably well. So I think it’s fair to say that our hearts sank when the results of the 2000 election were finally in. In fact, Tony had felt very strongly that Gore had played it wrong during the campaign and that he should have used Bill Clinton more rather than distancing himself from the president. He seemed not to realize how much goodwill Bill still commanded what and a great communicator he was. Like the rest of the world, we followed the drama of the election, and for me, as a lawyer, it was fascinating to see the U.S. Supreme Court splitting along political lines. It would never have happened like that in the UK, because the appointment of our judges is not so politicized.
We had watched George W. Bush on television and felt that he didn’t seem comfortable with foreign affairs, yet Tony was determined that they should have a good relationship. Others of our party, notably Alastair [Campbell, Blair’s press secretary] and [Blair’s close adviser] Sally Morgan, had a more mixed view.
‘The meal over, the President said, “Why don’t we all watch a movie?” So we did. We watched Meet the Parents with Robert De Niro. I sat next to George, who was soon laughing away.’
As we prepared for our first meeting with the Bushes at Camp David at the end of February 2001, I said to Tony, “Let’s face it, he’s probably not looking forward to it much either. He knows we’re friends of the Clintons, and he also knows you’re a Labour Prime Minister and all the rest of it, so everybody’s going to be a bit nervous, everybody’s going to want to try and get along.”
The fact that the encounter was in the semi-rustic setting of Camp David was indicative, in a way, of the difference between the two presidents. The Clintons had entertained us lavishly with a formal banquet at the White House. And whereas they never really got going till late, the Bushes were tucked up in bed by ten. We had come from Ottawa, where I had been half-frozen, having no idea of how heart-stoppingly cold it would be. From Washington we were flown out to Camp David in the presidential helicopter Marine One, which is less like a helicopter and more like a small plane.
That first night with the Bushes, we had an early dinner. The meal over, the President said, “Why don’t we all watch a movie?” So we did. He got all the new releases on DVD, he explained, and that night we watched Meet the Parents with Robert De Niro. There were armchairs ranged around, and I sat next to George, who was soon laughing away. It was a perfectly friendly evening, very low key.
In fact, the Prime Minister and the President got on remarkably well. George is actually a very funny, charming man with a quirky sense of humor. The reason he gets bad press, he says, is “because I talk Texan.” Bush thinks Texan, too. Bill Clinton is also from the South, but while Clinton may talk southern, he doesn’t think southern.
There had certainly been a slight sense of anxiety before the meeting, but by the time we left, the general consensus was that “he’s a guy we can easily get on with.” We may not have agreed in terms of domestic politics, but that is largely irrelevant in terms of international diplomacy. And the special relationship between the UK and the United States is precisely why, when the Bush and the Republicans took over, there was never any question that we would do everything we could to get on well with them.
The next time we saw the Bushes was at Chequers a month or so later. By then we knew that George didn’t really like formal entertaining, and if they’d come to Number 10, we’d have to have had some kind of formal dinner. They were much happier in an informal setting, and we were very clear that we wanted it to be just en famille. When we were told that Condoleezza Rice wanted to stay the night, we said no. Everyone could come for the meetings, but there were to be no sleepovers apart from the family. The day they were arriving, Linda, who was then running Chequers, came to see me. “I’ve managed to accommodate Mr. Bush’s doctor,” she said. “I’ve put him in my room.”
“What doctor?” I asked.
“Dr. Rice?” And then the penny dropped. Condi, as she is always known, had conned Linda into thinking the President needed to have his medical doctor close at hand.
Like us, the Bushes are very family oriented. Laura was an only child brought up by her mother, and she married into this big family, with everyone having loads of children. But she and George have only two children, twin daughters, only one named for her mother and the other for his: Jenna and Barbara.
‘So there we were, discussing the death penalty. I stated my view, saying that the death penalty is inherently wrong and that if you make a mistake, you can’t put it right. “Well, that’s not the way it is in America,” George said. “We take the eye-for-an-eye view.”'
That evening at [the prime minister’s official country residence] Chequers was very much a family affair, and in addition on to our children, James Dove, [son] Euan’s friend from the Oratory, was there. He had always been interested in politics, and perhaps because he was present, the conversation was more wide-ranging than it might have been if it had just been us. Certainly I can’t see Tony or me raising the question of capital punishment, but that’s exactly what one of the kids did. So there we were, discussing the death penalty: in one corner, an American President who believed in it; in the other, a human rights lawyer who very definitely did not. I stated my view, saying that the death penalty is inherently wrong and that if you make a mistake, you can’t put it right.
“Well, that’s not the way it is in America,” George said. “We take the eye-for-an-eye view.”
But it was completely and utterly good-hearted. The way George handled those kids and their questions, I thought, All credit to him. And I know that both James and Euan were pleasantly surprised that he could string an argument together and didn’t turn into some sort of raging bigot. I often say that I must be the only person on the left that George Bush gets to socialize with. But no one can say—at least not me—that he doesn’t have a sense of humor.
Laura is a very warm, genuine person whom I liked the moment I met her, and I immediately felt completely comfortable talking with her. It was clear that we had common ground; like me, she is interested in other women and women’s issues generally. When we met, we would talk about our families and about literature, because we share a love of books. We had more of a “female friends” sort of relationship than I had with Hillary. My conversations with Hillary focused more on ideas, and of course we had our politics in common. To a degree, when I first met her, I was a little in awe. As Bill’s wife, she had already been the First Lady for a number of years and was experienced in the job. But when Laura and I met, we were on a much more equal footing and have remained so. Our children, too, are more of an age.
‘These Texas Republican women would start comparing Laura to ‘that terrible Clinton woman,’ going on and on about Hillary in the most disparaging way. I couldn’t believe anyone could be so rude. I didn’t say anything. There was absolutely no point.’
Laura trained as a teacher, and in an exchange between colleges, she did part of her training in Oxfordshire, so she is surprisingly well-informed about life in England. I knew that Laura was involved in a breast cancer charity, but it was the American ambassador. to Hungary who had suggested this joint event when she’d heard I was going to Texas. It was my first experience of the sheer professionalism of American fund-raising, and it was extraordinary: people paid at different levels to get different levels of access.
At the reception Laura and I stood beside each other as people made their way along the line. Just like one of my Downing Street receptions, I decided, and I began chatting to those at the head of the queue. Immediately I heard voice in my ear: “Mrs. Blair, you’re to stop talking to these people. Just stand here, shake their hands, and let the photographer take the picture. That’s all they’ve paid for. We’ve two hundred and twenty people to get through, so please understand. All they want is their picture with you and the First Lady. Please don’t talk to them. That’s not the point.” So that’s exactly what we did. It was a conveyor belt.
Then came dinner. Just about everyone was a Republican, and these were Texas Republicans. I found myself in a nearly intolerable situation. These women would start by saying how lovely Laura was, and I would concur, and then they’d start comparing her to “that terrible Clinton woman,” going on and on about Hillary in the most disparaging way. I couldn’t believe anyone could be so rude. I didn’t say anything. There was absolutely no point, and I didn’t want to make a scene, but I had to keep reminding myself that half the proceeds of that night were going to Breast Cancer Care.
From the book Speaking For Myself: My Life from Liverpool to Downing Street , by Cherie Blair. Copyright (c) 2008 by Cherie Blair. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.