Tony Blair on Clinton, Bush and the American Character

In an essay exclusively adapted for TIME from his new memoir, A Journey, Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair reflects on the U.S. Presidents he has known and worked with — and on their country

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Nadav Kander / Contour / Getty

Adapted from Tony Blair's A Journey: My Political Life, published by Alfred A. Knopf.

During my time as Prime Minister I came to love America — loved its sense of aspiration, the notion of coming from nothing and making something of yourself. I didn't start that way; I didn't know many Americans at school or university, and I was 32 before I visited the U.S. My view of America had been formed from countless movies and TV shows and the odd interaction with American tourists. I had a touch of that British raised eyebrow at our American cousins. But in 1985, I was part of a delegation of Members of Parliament sent to see then U.S. Treasury Secretary James Baker, to talk about an issue that had arisen over double taxation, which happens when two nations both claim to be able to tax the same economic activity. I knew nothing about Jim, but it was decided that I would be the one to make our case to him and give the Treasury Secretary a good tough talking-to. Like the diligent lawyer I then was, I mugged up on the facts, became an overnight expert on double taxation and was duly thrown into the fray, the flight over on the Concorde having boosted my sense of my own importance.

I came out of the meeting feeling a little like a boxer who had been told that the fight was fixed and the other guy would go down in the second round, only to find he was in the ring with Rocky Marciano and no one had told him about the deal. Jim was focused, on top of the detail, erudite, answered my points one by one, threw in a few of his own, took my warnings of tough action and exposed them as a series of paper tigers and sent me out of there reeling and seeing stars. Above all, he was smart. What I learned that day is that Americans can be really, really clever.

It was a useful lesson for my time in office. I worked closely with two Presidents, Bill Clinton and George Bush, and have got to know a third, Barack Obama, through my recent work in the Middle East. Leadership is personal. People often think of leaders as the repositories of unique knowledge, who by reason of their office can survey things that others cannot. Despite the modern media tendency to bring leaders down to earth and expose their frailties more rapidly and intrusively than in times gone by, there is still a sense in which the leader, and most particularly the President of the United States, remains on the Olympian heights. Mere mortals are still inspired by a certain awe — at least for the office of the presidency, if not always for the human being that occupies it.

Once you know the truth — and as British Prime Minister you see the U.S. President close-up pretty often — you see the personal side, and no longer look at Presidents as remote officeholders but also as human actors in the unfolding dramas of political affairs. This is the best vantage point, and in my case, it has led me to an even greater sense of respect for the quality of leadership that America can produce. People often ask me: "Tell me, how was it with Bill Clinton, and then George Bush?" I always reply, "Here's a real insight: they were very different from each other!" But they both have tremendous strengths.

Resilience and Intuition
When I first got to know Bill, he was — as he remains — the most formidable politician I had ever encountered. And yet his very expertise and extraordinary capacity at the business of politics obscured the fact that he was also a brilliant thinker, with a clear and thought-through political philosophy and program. He had an endless ability for rapport with ordinary people. I remember an occasion in 2003 when he came to the annual Labour Party conference in the rather faded northern seaside resort of Blackpool, and went out for a late-night McDonald's burger and fries, shooting the breeze with folks, much to the amusement and astonishment of a sprinkling of late-night diners, as if it were what he did every Tuesday night. Over time, the right wing created the legend that people voted for Bill because he was just a really clever political operator. In fact, people voted for him because they were smart. They didn't buy a slick politician; they bought a sensible, modern, worked-out program, based on a philosophy that seemed far more relevant to their times than anything they had been offered before.

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