In the course of defending George W. Bush during a White House press conference this morning, Tony Blair said that it's easy to get a "round of applause" by attacking America. "You attack the president," he said, "and you get ..."
"A standing ovation," Bush interjected.
It was a brief moment of gallows humor shared by two politicians whose better days are behind them.
As the British prime minister prepares to leave office, his approval rating hangs just below 30 percent, or right about where Bush's is. While it's hard to make the case that Blair has caused Bush political damage in the United States -- the president has been plenty capable of doing that job himself -- the reverse isn't necessarily true. Bush was asked today whether he thinks he's partly to blame for Blair's departure. He shrugged off the question. First he said he hadn't "polled the Labor Conference," then he said "could be," then he said he didn't know.
Blair said that people "can debate ... as much as you like" whether his loyalty to Bush has hurt him, but he said that he'd do it all over again anyway. "I've admired him as a president and I regard him as a friend," Blair said of Bush. "I have taken the view that Britain should stand shoulder to shoulder with America after September 11. I have never deviated from that view. I do not regret that view. I am proud of the relationship we have had. I am proud of the relationship between our two countries. And I think that sometimes, in politics, there are all sorts of issues where you've got to negotiate and compromise. But when it comes to the fundamental questions that affect our security and the future of the world, you should do what is right."
When Bush returned to the question a few minutes later, he replaced his smirk with what passed for a sweeping view of history. "It's hard to define a relationship in, you know, sound bites or press conferences or to, you know -- in a way that really reflects the depth of what we have done together," he said. "And -- so I don't regret things about what may or may not have happened over the past five years. I honor a relationship that I truly believe has been laying the foundation for peace. You know, this may not interest you, but I'll tell you anyway. I read three histories on George Washington last year. It's interesting to me that they're still analyzing the presidency of our first president. And my attitude is, if they're still analyzing 1, 43 doesn't need to worry about it. I'm not going to be around to see the final history written on my administration. When you work on big items, items to -- agendas based upon sound philosophy that will transform parts of the world to make it more peaceful, we're not going to be around to see it.
"My relationship with this good man is where I've been focused. And that's where my concentration is. And I don't regret any other aspect of it. And so, I -- you know, we've filled a lot of space together. We have -- we have had a -- a unique ability to speak in terms that help design common strategies and tactics to achieve big objectives. And it's -- you know, will I miss working with Tony Blair? You bet I will. Absolutely. Can I work with the next guy? Of course. And I'm here to make it clear to the, you know, people of our respective countries that this relationship is one that is vital to accomplish big objectives. It has been vital in the past. It has stood the free world -- it has enabled the free world to do hard things. It's a relationship that I believe is necessary to do the hard things in the 21st century. And so, you know, I honor Tony Blair."