Jonathan Aitken

Diary - 1 May 2004

Tony Blair may be shaky at home but Stateside he is second only to Churchill

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Not since Randolph Churchill’s The Fight for the Tory Leadership has any book of political reportage caused as much of a stir on either side of the Atlantic as Bob Woodward’s latest bestseller Plan of Attack. In the last few days I have listened to detailed dissections of the gospel according to Woodward. I have discussed his book in the West Wing of the White House, at student seminars at Georgetown University, during dinner with my fellow columnists of the American Spectator and at the hospitable home of its editor-in-chief, Bob Tyrrell. I even had a conversation about Woodward in a place where his fierce anti-war opponents would no doubt like to see President George W. Bush — a high-security Texas prison.

Political discussion was not, though, the point of the prison visit. On Easter Sunday, my wife Elizabeth and I accompanied my biographical subject, Charles Colson, to the death row of a women’s jail. It was his 27th consecutive Easter of preaching in prison. ‘There is nowhere I would rather be on this day than in these tombs of modern society,’ said Colson. I agree with him. We ex-offenders (Colson was jailed for seven months in 1974 for Watergate offences committed in the White House) who return to incarceration to work in prison ministry can sometimes tune in to an almost mystical wavelength with men and women still serving their time. On the first occasion that I shared preaching duties with Colson, at Parchman State Penitentiary, a notorious jail in the Deep South, I was scared stiff not of the prisoners but that my Eton and Oxford accent might be incomprehensible in darkest Mississippi. I needn’t have worried. I deployed the opening line I use in British prisons, ‘I have been where you are now’ and immediately there was pin-drop silence, rapt attention and even friendly laughter at my corny in-jokes. It was good to discover that the special relationship can work at the worm’s-eye as well as at the bird’s-eye level of Anglo-American co-operation.

Back at the bird’s-eye level, the two principal players in the special relationship are both sympathetically portrayed by Bob Woodward. Bush comes across as a commander in chief who did not want to lead America or her strongest ally into war until he was totally convinced that he had no other option. So who convinced him? Step forward the subjects of the two unfriendliest portraits in Plan of Attack — CIA director George Tenet and Vice President Dick Cheney. When Bush was having serious doubts about the weapons of mass destruction evidence, Tenet twice reassured him that ‘It’s a slam-dunk case’, a basketball expression meaning absolutely certain. Cheney is also portrayed unflatteringly, as the school bully with war-fever who twisted everyone’s arm to get them to sign up to the invasion. We should, however, bear in mind that Woodward’s principal source for all this anti-Cheney material is the Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is now so keen to distance himself from the Iraq policy he once championed that Beltway insiders see him as an odds-on certainty for early retirement after the election.

Tony Blair may be the subject of early retirement rumours at home but he comes so well out of Woodward’s book that it can only increase his status in the US. I have listened to some of Washington’s heaviest hitters talking about our PM, and their comments take on a tone of reverence not far removed from idolatry. Extraordinary though it may sound when his ratings are so shaky at home, in the stakes for America’s most-admired British prime minister of all time, Blair is right up there — perhaps a nose ahead of Thatcher and not that many lengths behind Churchill. This is not just sycophantic mood music from the White House mess; I know from my travels around the country that it plays in Peoria too.

Watching the Bush-Blair televised love-in from the rose garden as well as Bush’s solo press conference three days earlier, and then listening to Middle America talking about both events, I feel sure that George W. Bush will do better with the voters in November than the current polls suggest. Iraq is tough, but in my experience as a war correspondent, back in Saigon in the 1960s, to call it the ‘new Vietnam’ as the news magazines here are doing is an absurd exaggeration. Bush may mangle his press-conference syntax almost as badly as Eisenhower did, but as Morley said of Gladstone, ‘It is the character breathing through the sentences that counts.’ What counts here is that Middle Americans, particularly in the southern and midwestern states (crucial in terms of Electoral College votes), genuinely seem to like Bush’s can-do, no-nonsense character in a way that the chattering classes of Europe just can’t grasp. In an increasingly polarised electorate, the race for the White House is bound to be close. But the populist incumbent President, tough on terrorism and presiding over a job-creating economy, will, I predict, have the edge on his liberal and patrician challenger, John Kerry.

Here’s a nice story about how John Kerry honed his public-speaking skills in Old England. It was first told to me by the late Noel Picarda (satirist, cabaret star and sadly unsuccessful Conservative parliamentary candidate) some weeks before his untimely death last summer. In the 1960s, Picarda was the chairman and principal vocalist of a boisterous outfit which (just) had the blessing of Conservative Central Office — the Hyde Park Tories. The group consisted of self-promoting open-air orators who got up on a soapbox at Speakers’ Corner on Sunday mornings to fight many a good fight against the regular hecklers by advocating Conservative policies. One Sunday morning, according to Noel Picarda, he was in full flow on the soapbox when a group of young American tourists joined the fun and one of them, a tall gangly lad with a shock of fuzzy hair, asked if he could have a go. So the young American took on the hecklers and, after some coaching by the Hyde Park Tories, apparently acquitted himself extremely well. This young American, Picarda claimed, was John Kerry.

As my friend Noel could be an artistic spinner of fine embroidered yarns, I suspected that this one might fall into the category of ben trovato, so I repeated it last week to a Beltway journalist with close ties to the Kerry campaign, who said he would check it out. To my surprise he soon called back. ‘The Senator doesn’t remember all the details,’ he said, ‘but he does recall enjoying speaking at Hyde Park Corner with a lively group of British students.’ What fun to think that the Democratic party’s very liberal candidate for the Presidency of the United States was helped on his way by the very Conservative Hyde Park Tories.