If this weekend's Anglo-American summit in Crawford, Texas, is anything like the lovefest that most people expect it to be, some credit has got to go to a 49-year-old Scottish rugby player-turned-oil and gasman named Bill Gammell. Gammell turns out to be a missing link in the relationship between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.
When Bush met Blair for the first time, at Camp David in February of last year, the two leaders had so little in common that the president made a little joke out of the fact that they both used the same toothpaste (Colgate). They didn't look or sound much like soul mates. Bush was a conservative Texas Republican who had run a baseball team and acquired a taste for the high-school locker room humor of the "Austin Powers" movies. The British prime minister was an Oxford-educated barrister and lifelong center-left politician with a keen interest in the Qu'ran. But Bush knew that he and Blair could do business--and he knew it, NEWSWEEK has learned, from Gammell, one of his oldest friends. Gammell, the CEO of Cairn Energy in Edinburgh, has known both Bush and Blair since they were teenagers.
From the age of 13 on, Bush visited Gammell in Scotland half a dozen times. In 1983, Bush went to Gammell's wedding in Glasgow. While Gammell was palling around with the teenaged Bush, Gammell and Blair were in the same "house" and played basketball together at Fettes College, a boarding school known as "the Eton of Scotland." In 1997, during his first year as prime minister, Blair did Gammell the favor of opening the new Cairn Energy headquarters. So before Bush and Blair got together, Gammell did the proper Fettesian thing. He assured George that Tony was "a good chap."
Later, the events of September 11 brought Bush and Blair together in ways they could scarcely have imagined. They've spent hours on the phone (often without aides listening in), marshalled an international coalition against terrorism and sent their troops to war in Afghanistan. This weekend, at a summit at Bush's ranch, their odd-couple alliance will be put to its severest test as they contemplate what to do about Iraq, Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction.
It will almost certainly pass with flying colors. For one thing, the U.S.-UK "special relationship" historically surmounts personality differences. For another, as political leaders, Bush and Blair were never as far apart as their cardboard cutout caricatures suggested. As wildly different as they seem to be, they are both classic post-modern leaders--political pragmatists who are much less rooted in their party traditions than they seem to be from afar. "They come from very different political clans," says Denis MacShane, a Labour member of parliament. "But their politics are driven not by ideologies, but by values."
If there's a dark cloud over the Crawford summit, it is Blair's slightly shaky political standing back home. Rebel Labour MPs have rounded on Blair for his "poodle-like" obeisance to Bush. As the atrocities of September 11 recede and the anti-Saddam drumbeat quickens, more and more Britons are questioning the rationale behind what some of them see as a runaway Bush-Blair war machine. Blair's approval ratings for his handling of the British response to September 11 have fallen to just above 50 percent from a high of more than 80 percent.
Blair, therefore, is expected to make a show of standing his ground on a couple of issues on the Crawford agenda. He will press home the British (and European) view that military action against Iraq has to be linked to some progress in the shambles of the Middle East "peace" process. This, according to one source in London, is going to an "absolutely massive" issue--but sources in Washington say Bush administration hawks will fight him every step of the way. According to British sources, Blair may be more successful in getting the Bush government to exempt several British steel companies from the steel tariffs Bush imposed last month as relief for the troubled American industry.
If the going gets at all rough in Crawford, perhaps Bill Gammell can lend a hand. It runs in the family. In the 1950s, Gammell's father helped bankroll Bush's father's first foray into the oil business. In the early 1980s, Bill helped George W. bankroll his oil company, Arbusto Energy. Gammell, Bush and Blair: now that's a special relationship. Unfortunately, Gammell declined to talk to NEWSWEEK about his famous friends.