I embrace the notion that charisma counts. Notice, I didn’t say image because, unlike charisma which is organic, image is something usually crafted by someone else to be superimposed and not always convincingly. Communication skills count too, and may even lend some authenticity to the image bound. Of course, charisma and communication skills are the more natural combination and Tony Blair came into office ten years ago with both firm in hand. Natural combinations or not, in the end life is a leveler and in that, charisma, skillful communications and image equally give way when performance doesn’t match promise. Alas, Blair left Downing Street a tarnished leader.
Some will say the British are a curious lot with quaint customs including at times a seeming lack of emotion and, in politics, an abruptness. Blair leaves his residence, visits the queen and its all over. Brown leaves his office, visits the queen and an hour after his predecessor’s departure takes up residence at Number Ten. That’s quite different than we Yanks would do it for a Mayor much less the leader of the nation. There was something else striking in this going and coming. Both old and new Prime Ministers were driven with a single motorcycle escort in a small sedan, in Brown’s case with visible car traffic moving as usual in the opposite lane. Far cry for the caravan of limousines, police, secret service escorts and emergency vehicles that interrupt normal life when our President goes about. The British are not immune to such extravagant motorcades, but they’re reserved for the monarch who holds nothing but symbolic power. Perhaps our way is necessary, but what I saw today on the tube was refreshing, a reminder that we are all mortals.
Tony Blair started so well. He reminded everyone of Clinton but perhaps equally of JFK. Young, charismatic, articulate and out to change the world…for the better. As I’ve noted before, listening to him verbally joust with friend and foe alike during Prime Minister’s questions was a sheer delight. It made one yearn for a leader who could put two thoughts together in coherent sentences, elegantly (and grammatically) expressed. Isn’t ironic, all that pomp combined with the excruciatingly mundane in our country compared with so much simplicity combined with such sophistication across the pond? It smacks of a cover-up and its hard to know on which side, perhaps at times both.
In any event, the bold leader moves on weighed down by the image of a pet poodle, and look at whose poodle to boot. “Oh, how the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle” (in which so many others needlessly die). It’s an interesting thing about leadership and one repeated time after time in history. Leaders are often brutally remembered and marked more for their mistakes than for their accomplishments. Lyndon Johnson is the prime example in our time, but Woodrow Wilson suffered the same fate as did Nixon and undoubtedly will our current president. Whatever good Blair did, he will always be associated with Iraq, occupying by his own choice, the same sorry bed as George W. Bush. Like Bush here, he lied, or to put it more politely and deferentially, stretched the truth (mightily one must add), to the British cajoling them into an unwanted war. Like Bush, he stayed the misguided course, and defends it to this day. Americans love to hear him talk and say that he expresses why we’re there so much better, but our friends in the Mother Country weren't taken in by the glib explanations. Bad policies are bad however well they are expressed.
The one thing Tony Blair can’t take away from me is my belief that charisma and effective communications are vital components of leadership. That he didn’t use them well may make me sad and probably more so angry, but most excellent trees produce a few flawed apples. Tony Blair is one of them. Nobody ever accused Gordon Brown of having a wit of charisma and his communication skills are undoubtedly less facile than Blair’s. Perhaps in the present context that’s not such a bad thing, but whatever talents, known and hidden, he will have to prove himself to this own people. He probably won’t win the hearts of Americans like Tony did. Perhaps that bodes well for mankind.