Everyone knows that Britain and the United States have what diplomats call a “special relationship.” But until you’ve read a transcript of the American president bro-ishly assuring the British prime minister that he still has that “choirboy look,” you haven’t appreciated just how special that connection can be.
On Friday, the BBC published three years’ worth of conversations between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, after obtaining the transcripts via a FOIA request. The dialogues, which date from 1997 to 2000, provide insight into how the two founders of “third way” politics viewed domestic and world affairs during their tenures in power. They also shed light on Bill Clinton’s fondness for babysitting and brown bananas.
1. Clinton thought George W. Bush was a smart politician, but unfit for the presidency.
“Bush is a skilled politician, but he is not ready to be president, maybe not ever, certainly not now,” Clinton told Blair. “But they want it real bad and they’ve got lots of money and lots of media access and they are not freshly discredited.”
Nonetheless, Clinton told his ally that he expected Gore to win — an assessment he backed away from several weeks later.
“I am just so afraid that all the benefits will be squandered if Bush wins the elections,” the president confided. “I still think we have a 50 percent or better chance to win.”
“Quite close, isn’t it?” Blair asked.
“It shouldn’t be. White married Protestants don’t think they should be voting for Democrats, partly because of the gun issue that Al and I are taking on,” Clinton said, before expressing the paradoxes of American gun politics that would still bedevil his Democratic successor more than a decade later.
“All the specifics people agree with … It is crazy. You can take a poll about loopholes. Sixty-five percent to 30 percent say yes, but even in New York where it is more liberal than the rest of the country, if Hillary were endorsed by this group that did the Million Mom March, it’s like 40 to 40 percent. A lot of the country likes it when we are in, but they have a hard time admitting it.”
Clinton went on to express a kind of admiration for the cunning of Bush’s smear campaign against John McCain in the South Carolina primary.
“Bush is really smart. The campaign against McCain was the most vicious in modern memory. He has these right-wing foot soldiers do his dirty work, so he can be nice.”
2. Blair was already concerned with mobilizing support for confronting Saddam in 1998.
During a conversation in February 1998, Clinton expressed concerns over both Hussein’s weapons program and the potential political costs of failing to confront the Iraqi dictator.
“If people knew how many weapons Unscom inspectors have exposed they would understand why this is so important.” Clinton said.
“We are getting new pressures, especially from Capitol Hill, to go after Saddam’s head,” Vice-President Al Gore told Blair.
Blair said later, “Our public opinion is not the same as yours, but we are working hard to educate the public. We put out a white paper yesterday on Iraq’s WMD programs.”
3. Clinton likened stateless terrorists to James Bond villains.
In another foreshadowing of the war on terror that lay ahead, Clinton predicted that the West would “increasingly have to deal with terrorists with no ties to any nation-state, including Iran … In the case of a lot of Middle East and African countries, we could be dealing with these people, like in those old James Bond movies with SPECTRE and Dr. No. We’re going to have a twenty-first century version of those.”
4. Blair and Clinton shared a moment after the death of Princess Diana.
One day after Princess Di was killed in a Paris car crash, the two leaders commiserated over the phone. Clinton lamented that Diana was “just getting a hold of her life,” while Blair expressed concerns for the royal children.
5. Clinton can believe that Blair was once a choirboy.
6. Clinton couldn’t get a read on Gerry Adams.
Many of the leaders’ conversations focused on the Northern Ireland peace process. Clinton repeatedly assured Blair that he’d do whatever the prime minister asked to help facilitate an agreement.
At one point in June 1999, Chelsea Clinton, then at Stanford, was writing a paper on Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams — a school assignment that prompted her father to question the MP’s relationship with the IRA.
“I’ve been reading about it all through this, because my daughter just happens to be doing a paper on Adams,” Clinton told Blair. “I don’t know what the real deal is between him and the IRA. It’s hard to put pressure on him when you don’t know what’s going on. It’s just bizarre.”
7. Blair thinks Africa is a “fascinating continent”
Blair’s fascination with Africa — both as a continent and moneymaking opportunity — proved to be sincere.
8. Boris Yeltsin introduced Clinton to nose-to-tail cooking before it was fashionable.
“When I had lunch with Boris, he served roast pig and told me real men hack off the ears and eat them,” Clinton divulged. “And once he served 24 courses, including moose lips.”
9. Trump isn’t the only American political figure who fell for Putin’s wiles.
Shortly after Vladimir Putin’s election to the Russian presidency, Clinton told Blair that he had high hopes for the new leader.
“Putin has enormous potential,” Clinton said. “I think he’s very smart and thoughtful. I think we can do a lot of good with him.”
10. Blair put Bill on his babysitter’s list.
11. Blair may have ordered the extrajudicial execution of a telephone operator.
12. Clinton preferred to talk to Blair while keeping one hand on a big brown banana.
“My staff won’t let me talk to you unless I have a banana at hand,” the leader of the free world confessed. “I’m sitting here with a banana; it’s a big, ugly, brownish one.”