George Bush is a reformed alcoholic, and takes staying on the wagon seriously. I have recently discovered that you can’t get a drink at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, since it’s located in the dry gulch of prohibitionist counties. As we wait for the Bush-Blair show to begin, I find you can’t get a drink in the White House itself. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the programme will commence in two minutes,’ bark the loudspeakers in the White House hallway. Up close, W. is small and dapper, with a far from friendly glint in the eyes. You can tell he’s a martinet, even before he turns meanly on an American reporter: ‘You violated the two-question rule as usual. You have a bad habit of this.’ I ask if there is a direct link between Saddam Hussein and the September 11 bombers. Bush mutters, ‘I cannot make that claim.’ Later this appears as ‘inaudible’ in the White House transcript and ‘make that plain’ on the Downing Street website.
Not all foreign leaders are as keen as Mr Blair to have face-time with the President. The current toast of the Oval Office is the President of Djibouti. Tiring of his allotted meeting time after just five minutes, he took his leave and walked out amid whoops of ‘All right!’ from the Leader of the Free World.
Bush smothers Blair with compliments, and yet gives the Prime Minister no help with a further UN resolution. He clearly calculates that his guest has gone so far out on a limb that he has nowhere else to go. The President may be famous for his verbal infelicities – on this occasion he mixes Iran with Iraq – but he knows what he wants and generally gets it. Never mind the credibility of the United Nations; it’s already obvious that Bush and Blair will have neither credibility nor a foreign policy unless Saddam Hussein is removed from power.
It is odd that at this critical time there will soon be no British ambassador in Washington. Sir Christopher Meyer is leaving the post at the beginning of March, but his replacement, David Manning, won’t be in place until the early summer because he can’t be spared from his current post as foreign affairs adviser to the PM. With weeks to go, a demob-happy spirit hangs over the Meyers’ Lutyens-designed residence. A plastic bobby’s helmet and a NY Yankees baseball cap adorn the marble busts in the hall. The grand piano boasts a photo of the ambassador and his wife with Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Since the Welsh star is probably the hottest Brit on these shores (apart from ‘Tony’), Sir Christopher’s taste for celebrity and diplomacy will come in useful in his new job at the Press Complaints Commission. His German-born wife, Catherine, is less silky. She is not fond of her fatherland, after losing two sons in a tug-of-love case. Asked about Germany’s current peacenik stance, she declares, ‘They would!’
After 18 hours on the ground, we make for home. With no screens or special fittings in the chartered BA777, Tony Blair sleeps democratically in the open. Usually he’s in the front row, snug against the bulkhead in the sarcophagus-like beds of first class, surrounded by his travelling party – Alastair Campbell, Lady Morgan, Jonathan Powell, David Manning, Tom Kelly, Kate Garvey – and his security detail. Most of his team (though not Blair) favour the Star Trek-style sleeper suits provided by the airline.
I’m glad of my flatbed, as I head straight into work: interviewing Thabo Mbeki at the Dorchester. Mbeki was a familiar figure on the international press circuit in the 1980s as black South Africa’s foreign minister in exile. At the 1987 Commonwealth summit, Mrs Thatcher memorably told me that he was ‘no better than the IRA’. It was always going to be difficult for him to follow Nelson Mandela, but the South African President shows considerable dexterity, and has no difficulty pointing out our double standards on Zimbabwe. Why should Britain’s cricketers be banned from going when Zimbabwe’s athletes competed in the Manchester Commonwealth Games under the proud proprietorial eye of Tony Blair? On this one, it’s double standards all round. President Chirac, the great upholder of multilateralism, has invited Mugabe to Paris in clear defiance of the EU’s travel sanctions. An exasperated Don McKinnon, secretary-general of the Commonwealth, is wondering out loud why everyone found it so much easier to unite against the apartheid regime.
After that it’s off for lunch at the Anglo-French summit in Le Touquet, where the exchanges between Blair and Chirac are as sickly as the chocolate crŒme br