Bush and Blair: a tale of two former leaders

The former US president’s popularity is on the rise, while Blair’s couldn’t be much lower.

Being the former leader of a nation can be a lucrative and rewarding business. One can settle down to a quieter life safe in the knowledge that the public speaking gigs will be plentiful and that your memoirs will sell by the bucketload. With time, you may even gain that most prized of post-premiership perks: forgiveness.

But Tony Blair will have to wait a while yet.

If testifying at the Iraq war inquiry had already bought back uncomfortable memories of his tenure, the backlash over that photo with Muammar al-Gaddafi is something the Middle East envoy should have seen coming, even if he could not have predicted the scale of the uprisings in recent weeks.

As his remaining allies have been quick to point out, however, it was not just Blair who brought Gaddafi in from the cold in 2004. Among others, George W Bush was all too happy to welcome Libya back into the international fold.

Bush has faced some retrospective criticism for his relationship with Gaddafi in the US, but not to the same extent as Blair, perhaps due to his wise decision to allow Condoleezza Rice to be the one to pose for photos with the Libyan leader.

It is likely events in the Middle East will be little more than a blip in Bush's quest for redemption – a quest on which he is making far better progress than Blair.

Americans have always treated their former leaders with much greater reverence than in Britain, and while Bush has not exactly become a national treasure, his popularity is once again reaching the levels he enjoyed early on in his tenure. A December Gallup poll rated his retrospective job approval at 64 per cent, higher than his average approval rating over the course of his presidency.

After going underground for a long period after handing the reins to Barack Obama, Bush re-emerged in November with a whirlwind publicity tour to promote Decision Points, his inevitable presidential memoirs. What followed was a series of highly scripted, fist-pumping television appearances, aiming to paint Bush as just an ordinary guy who loves his county. Audience reactions seemed to welcome this notion.

It is hard to imagine Blair getting away with such a stunt.

His own memoirs, A Journey, published just two months before Bush's, also saw a former leader in the public eye once again. It sold in millions, but the British public was not so keen to welcome a repentant Blair back into its bosom. Being forced to change the book's title from The Journey to its newer, less self-important title wasn't exactly a good start.

Even his former party seems to have deserted Blair as Ed Miliband attempts to distance himself from the ghost of New Labour past. In the US, however, a resurgent Republican Party is pushing many of the traditional values that Bush espoused.

A year ago, the New Statesman reported on a mysterious billboard that emerged in Wyoming bearing the slogan "Miss Me Yet?" and a picture of the former president. What started as a jokey political poster quickly turned into an internet meme, with the slogan appearing on bumper stickers and T-shirts. Regardless of the current state of the country, it is hard to see a similar campaign working for Tony Blair.

Indeed, at the time of the general election, when Blair was offering his wisdom to assist Labour's campaign, he scored an average rating of 36.2 on a 1-100 scale of unfavourable to favourable feelings, according to a survey by Greenberg Research. If people were missing him, they certainly weren't showing it.

Bush and Blair will never be considered the most popular leaders of their respective countries. But, for Bush, sentiment seems to be shifting towards viewing him as a sympathetic and well-meaning character. Whether this is a backlash against Obama or a genuine display of affection remains to be seen, but for now, in certain circles at least, Bush is not a pariah. For Blair, however, there is always the hope that time can be a healer.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder