They took to the stage like an old vaudeville act on their farewell tour. There was the straight guy who used words like "climate change," "sectarianism" and "poverty." Standing next to him was his joke-cracking partner who used words like "blowhards" and "hot-air artists." The George and Tony show has had its ups and downs (well, OK, mostly downs of late). But the graying duo could still tap the old magic, showing off their comedic timing, ducking-and-dodging talents, and genuine mutual admiration for the cameras.
First came the age jokes. President Bush welcomed Prime Minister Tony Blair back to the White House for one last visit before Blair leaves office this summer by saying he'd been a good friend. "He has led the British people for a long time," the president deadpanned. "Since 1797."
"It just feels that way," Blair said under his breath.
Bush's scripted joke was a reference to his flub in front of Queen Elizabeth last week. (He suggested that the Queen had helped celebrate America's bicentennial in 1776.) But the gag didn't really work. The British media showed up to bury Blair, not praise him. Adam Boulton of Sky News asked why Blair wasn't quitting earlier, since his finance minister, Gordon Brown, had been confirmed as his successor. "That's a lovely question," President Bush quipped.
Bush gave a lovely answer to Boulton's follow-up question about whether the president was responsible for Blair's demise. "I haven't polled the Labour conference," Bush said as he shrugged his shoulders, "but could be."
The visit was haunted by history. The night before, Bush said, the two chatted on the Truman Balcony of the White House. Truman is in vogue in the beleaguered Bush White House: a leader driven out of office in the midst of an unpopular war, whose reputation was revived by the history books.
After their conversation on the Truman Balcony, Blair retired to the Queen's bedroom inside the White House. Bush likes to tell visitors that Churchill stayed there for weeks as he hatched his grand alliance with FDR. Churchill used to shock the White House staff by preferring to work in the nude as he drank copious amounts of brandy. It's not clear what clothes Blair wore, never mind what if anything he drank, while staying at the White House residence.
"Let me end where I began, which is the importance of the relationship between the United States and Britain," said Blair, doing his best to don Churchill's mantle. "It's served us well in the past. But it's not a relationship that's founded on history; it's a relationship that is about a shared future."
If the Brits were interested in the future, they weren't showing it. After another question about whether it was even worth talking to the soon-to-be-ex prime minister, Bush sounded shocked. "You know it's interesting," he remarked, "like trying to do a tap dance on his political grave, aren't you? You don't understand how effective Blair is, I guess, because when we're in a room with world leaders and he speaks, people listen. And they view his opinion as considered and his judgment as sound."
British politics can be brutal. When Blair won his historic election in 1997, power slipped from the hands of John Major within hours. At the start of the evening in Major's hometown of Huntingdon, a crowd of supporters gathered to watch the results together with their leader. By the time Major showed up himself, the supporters had drifted away leaving only police officers and journalists to look on. When prime ministers lose an election, they are forced to move out of 10 Downing Street the next day—their family and all of their belongings in tow.
Sitting in the Rose Garden on Thursday, even the journalists were hard to find. There was a time, not so long ago, when the British media sent dozens of reporters to trail Blair on his regular trips to Washington. This week, the entire British contingent barely filled two small rows. Blair searched the seats for familiar faces at the start of the press conference but could find only a handful.
Despite the thinning crowds, Bush and Blair soldiered on as though nothing had changed. Both leaders spent their last few hours together toiling over issues like global warming and African development in preparation for their final working session: next month's G8 summit in Germany. Blair has pressed Bush repeatedly to take urgent and sweeping action on climate change, to little effect—just as he has often pressed the president to do more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has been a close relationship—and a critical one for Bush; Blair provided crucial backing in the run-up to the Iraq War, and Britain has been one of the last countries standing in the "coalition of the willing." But the benefits for Blair are harder to parse. On causes near and dear to his heart, the British prime minister has had a hard time getting payback for his stalwart support.
Now the challenge of trying to nudge Bush along on those causes rests with Blair's successor, Gordon Brown. It won't be the same. Bush suggested he'd become a kind of mentor to the new British prime minister. "I hope to help him in office the way Tony Blair helped me," the president said of Brown. "Newly elected president, Tony Blair came over and he reached out, he was gracious—was able to converse in a way where our shared interests were the most important aspect of the relationship. I would hope I would provide the same opportunities for Gordon Brown. I met him, thought he was a good fella."
It will be roughly a year before Britain goes to the polls to decide whether to back Brown's government over the resurgent Conservatives. That will give him plenty of time to study the Bush-Blair relationship-and decide just how closely he wants to stand to the American president.