Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Day with Tony Blair

It isn’t everyday that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair comes to town. So the preparations were pretty impressive – from the virtual isolation of the Henry Lee Irwin Theater at the Ateneo de Manila University where he spoke in the morning, to the pre-registration done also at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza where the second Leadership Conference series was held in the afternoon.

Assigned to cover both events last March 23, I found myself spending more time waiting, lining up and shuttling between the two venues than the actual time he spoke on both occasions. At one point while waiting in the theater made humid by the summer heat and filled to capacity, I found myself nodding off. More so at the crowded Sofitel’s Harbor Tent where the air-conditioning could not cope with the heat that was rolling off the nearby sea.

But when Blair comes onstage, you just have to stand up and applaud him. Tall and good-looking, the envoy to the Middle East for the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union exudes charm and confidence as well as a certain humility that is quite appealing. Yes, I am female and obviously a fan.

Not that he said anything earthshaking or even new. But it was the credibility and the sincerity with which he shared his thoughts about the mindset that leaders need to have “in a world that has become so interconnected and interdependent” that kept the audience glued to their seats. Plus the silver-grey hair peeking out from the side of his head and those intense blue eyes… but I am deviating.

After all, Blair is the Labour leader who led his party to victory in three consecutive general elections and who is credited for helping forge the peace agreement in Northern Ireland after decades of armed conflict.

Much has been written about his thoughts on the need for countries to make alliances to cope with global challenges, or the shift of power to the east (China) or how leaders can bridge differences by agreeing on certain principles even as they are prepared to make compromises to achieve objectives. It was all in the papers the next day.

But what struck me most about the former British prime minister is his humor, graciousness and diplomacy. Twice presented with a jacket for a token, he immediately took off his blazer to don the Ateneo Blue Eagle jacket in the morning and then the De La Salle Green Archer jacket in the afternoon (this U.P. graduate just had to smirk).

He interspersed his talk with jokes, often at his expense, like how he came off a grueling campaign to be inducted into office by Her Majesty, the Queen in a hand-kissing ceremony. After being asked not to actually kiss the hand, but to brush it lightly with his lips, he walked into the next room to greet the Queen and promptly stumbled over the carpet. “I don’t kiss her hand, I don’t brush it lightly with my lips but I practically fall all over her,” he said. “I can imagine the Queen thinking what a fervent man this new prime minister must be.”

I admired how skillfully he parried the attempts of broadcaster and moderator Cheche Lazaro to get his thoughts on how the country is managing the population. “You’re trying to get a headline off me!” he quipped before commenting how he has learned, over the years, to be most careful when dealing with lady journalists.

When Lazaro proceeded to read a question from the audience, seeking Blair’s opinion on when leaders should step down from office, the slightly harassed statesman said, “Right about now, I should imagine.”

He immediately grew serious, though, recalling an experience that served as a lesson in humility. As prime minister for 10 years, he was not allowed a mobile phone so he got one right after his resignation. He texted a friend ‘hello’, completely forgetting that his name would not register in the message. When the friend replied, “who are you?” Blair remembers thinking, “It’s only been 24 hours” since he had ceased to become prime minister yet he had virtually become an unknown.

What is most remarkable about Blair, though, is the fact that he is trying to achieve what is largely considered to be impossible: Bring about peace in the Middle East by brokering a solution to the decades-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He replaces World Bank president James Wolfensohn, who resigned in frustration at the lack of progress.

Blair offers a solution when he urges everyone to work together. “Not even one nation as great as America can do it alone,” he says.

Often described as the youngest to have assumed the position of Britain’s prime minister, Blair announced that he is also the only prime minister in some 150 years who fathered a child while in office “which makes you wonder what the other prime ministers were doing.”

After offering his apologies to his predecessors, he said that he wants his nine-year-old son to see a world in which he himself has strong faith but understands and respects those of a different faith.

“The 21st century needs faith. Unless people of different faiths learn to live with each other, we will not have peace. I want him in a world that is comfortable with the idea of faith and remembers that the basic tenet of faith is love for your fellow being,” he said.

To that, I say Amen.

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