Re: The Non-Empirical Insecurity Of A Faded Empire

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Gordon Brown may have had even more reason to be nervous about his first date with Obama today. A month ago, when Tony Blair and Obama co-headlined the National Prayer Breakfast, the British press was all abuzz about whether the appearance amounted to a dis of Brown. He would have preferred, after all, not to be the second U.K. prime minister to meet with Obama.

Our London bureau chief, Catherine Mayer, sent over some thoughts at the time, which I neglected to pass along because I am a bad colleague and also easily distracted. As Michael Steele would say, my bad. I’ve posted Catherine’s full comments below the fold:

There was consternation in Downing Street and much mirth in wider political circles when Tony Blair unexpectedly popped up yesterday at Obama’s side as star speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast. Since November, the silent and fierce competition between European leaders to be the first to grip and grin with the President at the White House has kept insiders from London to Berlin and Paris to Rome amused, but this was a punchline nobody had anticipated. A bitter joke indeed for Gordon Brown, who spent 10 tormented years in Blair’s shadow waiting for his turn at Britain’s top job, only to succeed his rival just as the boom times were about to come to a shuddering halt: this was way more galling than watching President Sarkozy swagger into the Oval Office ahead of a British delegation would have been.

And snowbound Britain may be running out of gritting salt, but today there’s no shortage of salt being rubbed into Brown’s wounds. Most British newspapers lead with the story (sample headline from The Times: AND THE WINNER IS…BLAIR GETS FIRST AUDIENCE WITH OBAMA) while Blair’s longtime critics admit to more than a twinge of nostalgia after watching him in action. Ben Brogan, who blogs for the mass-market Daily mail, writes:

No doubt Mr Blair’s religious outpourings will generate a spot of reaction from those who might find it a bit rich to be lectured in religious and moral terms by the man who led us into Iraq and oversaw the culture of casual mendacity that marked New Labour. But … watching Mr Blair put on a trademark display of self-deprecation and lip-quivvering guffery was a moment for nostalgia. Say what you like, this guy is good.

Conservative blogger Guido Fawkes casually twists the knife:

Guido never liked Tony, but he wasn’t a national embarrassment. Can you imagine Gordon stumbling over his words, banging his head against the microphone, calling the new president George…No wonder Obama wanted Tony.

It’s interesting that British reviews of Blair’s performance yesterday are generally pretty positive. It’s not just that Blair’s popularity here in his own country was so badly scarred by Iraq; in the normal course of events Brits would have been allergic to Blair flaunting his religious belief, no matter that he paid lipservice to “the correct distinction between the realms of religious and political authority.” When Blair was Prime Minister, his chief spinner Alastair Campbell once intervened to terminate a press interview with the words “we don’t do God.” Since Blair left office and set up his Faith Foundation, he does God often and seriously, but this generally doesn’t play well back home. So we can put the benign reactions to his National Prayer Breakfast speech down to two things: the depths of disenchantment with his successor or the heights of Obamamania gripping Britons. It may be that being called “my good friend” by the President is enough to confer a little shine on anyone, however tarnished. No wonder Brown is eager to get to the White House.