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Thirty Days: Tony Blair and the Test of History Hardcover – July 17, 2003
All Books, All the Time
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From Publishers Weekly
In the days leading up to the recent Gulf War, Stothard was granted access to the besieged world of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The result is in-depth political journalism with a touch of Upstairs Downstairs. Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement and former editor of the Times of London, draws a critical but sympathetic portrait of Blair as a politician who is willing to risk his historical legacy in order to do what he believes to be the right thing: stick by President Bush and the unpopular (in Europe) attack on Iraq. It may come as a surprise to many American readers how close Stothard believes Blair was to losing his grip on power. They might also be surprised how close Blair, a political cousin of Bill Clinton, felt ideologically to Bush-and that the two shared a religious conviction to attack Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein. Blair, he writes, "has the powerful Christian seriousness of the not-quite-yet convert." Although the book is full of Briticisms-some members of Parliament are "runners," others "wobblers"-Stothard expertly shapes a narrative in which Blair manages to stick by his principles in the face of intense pressure, although he is now facing trouble regarding what he told the British public during those prewar days. At times, the book focuses on Blair's advisers and others who serve the prime minister at the expense of Blair himself, but Stothard offers scrutiny of one of the world's most important leaders during a critical juncture in his-and the world's-history.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From The New Yorker
Formerly the editor of the London Times, Stothard was given access to Tony Blair and his inner circle from the time of the last-minute attempts to get a second U.N. resolution on Iraq until the statues in Baghdad were toppled. Strangely, the closer one gets to Blair the more opaque his motives become, and even those around him seem uncertain whether his policies stem from quasi-religious conviction, shrewd realpolitik, or a simple desire to please. Stothard excels at showing the eccentric world of Downing Street, with its archaic, genteel rituals and sardonic banter (a "Robert Mugabe" is the frostiest possible handshake, reserved for a politician you really abominate; to "Kofi" means to wax idealistic about internationalism). Faced with the overwhelming might of their American allies, the English take refuge in irony: when Blair asks how he should begin a televised speech justifying the war, his right-hand man suggests, "My fellow Americans …"
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
Top customer reviews
But not that the book is totally without merit or interest. Where it does excel is in depicting Blair's inner circle. Stothard points out that Blair's governing model - to an upprecedented extent in British history - more resembles an American presidency than a typical Prime Ministry. "Unelected advisors" dominate the space closest to Blair. We're used to that here. But in the UK, TB's total absorbtion of his role model Bill Clinton's approach to governing is seen as an alarming trend.
Dominating the scene is media advisor Alastair Campbell. Perhaps that's because as an ex-journalist, he connects best with Stothard. Or maybe it's because Campbell is undoubtedly Stothard's patron in this endeavour. [Like Blair would suggest that a journalist tag along with him for 30 days?] But, it's more than that. Campbell dominates the book because Stothard has got it right. Campbell is *the* dominating presence in Blair inner circle. In the whole aftermath of the Iraqi conflict - the WMD debate, the row with the BBC, the suicide of Dr. Kelly - Campbell's fingerprints are everywhere.
He's a constant presence here on almost every page. He has the best jokes (Blair asks him for help in drafting the start of a speech...Campbell suggests "My fellow Americans..."), is connected to the best information (all via text messaging it seems), sees around all the corners. All while training for the London Marathon (which the 43-year-old finished in 3:53 shortly after the 30 Days were up...a great achievement considering all he was going through during training).
It's tough to imagine how the Prime Minister is going to survive without this guy by his side everyday.
My quick view of the book is that the author and former Times editor Peter Stothard acts like he is not in the room but rather he is a quiet observer just recording the events without comments and editorial comments. A "fly on the wall" so to speak for 30 days. The book starts on Monday March 10 and ends Wednesday April 9. The war starts March 20 2003.
At the beginning or near the beginning of the book Blair acknowledges that Bush will proceed with or without Britain. The war seems set and there will be no consensus at the UN.
What I found odd about the book is that there is very little mention of the WMD's, or the other reasons for going to war. There is no mention of intelligence briefings, or satellite pictures or similar. By March 10 his mind has been made up. It is more about damage control, politics, speeches, and not having ministers resigning and similar. His image in the press and on TV share a high priority along with with diplomacy. By March 10 the decision has been made.
The question on everyone's mind is why does Blair back George Bush - the "poodle principle". Blair is almost alone, and the other leaders in the "coalition" do so with great reluctance. They make a minimal contribution to the Iraqi war effort and they seem poised to not want to cooperate or back out at any moment. So why does Blair do it? The only strong point we learn or hear is that by that date (March 10) Blair is determined to proceed seemingly at any cost to maintain US ties with Europe. He has decided to let "history" judge him for how the situation ends rather than trying to further explain his actions privately. He thinks that the UN should be involved, but barring no UN consensus his main point (among his 6 talking points to parliament) is that he does not want the US to become more isolated than it already is through complete 100% unilateral action. So at least Britain will help.
We get a feel for his compressed and overstressed life, a political juggling act, his lack of sleep, his battle to survive as the Labour leader in a parliamentary system where he must face his opposition daily in question period and his caucus weekly. They all seem to be after his job and Iraq is as good as an excuse as any to oppose Blair. Unlike Bush he can be voted out by his own party on a whim - like Thatcher - so he is not secure for the term elected in parliament (5 years).
One thing that comes out is that Blair acts like a lightening rod for many parties that no longer have access to Bush. This includes various Muslim messengers and diplomats visiting him and his talks with Arafat and others by telephone.
Since we already knew most of that - the book seems a bit anti-climatic and deals a lot with the logistics of his day-to-day life, the trivial details, his meals, his assistants, and travel. It gives us an intimate feel for the life of the PM in the confined space of 10 Downing. It covers his meetings with other leaders, and various other dignitaries, his telephone calls to Bush etc. The logistics do not tell us a lot new, although there are some details on Robin Cook's resignation and similar tidbits. He comes across as an energetic and very focused man, with a strong inner compass and lots of self confidence, and a strong determined leader with an ability to take and absorb a lot of domestic criticism.
So the book is all very very interesting but short on any new insights. But still a great book.