There are few journalists as politically knowledgeable as James Naughtie (pronounced KNOCK-TEE), a lead anchor of BBC Radio 4's "Today" show, a rough counterpart to America's National Public Radio.
"Speech radio," as it is called, "is the principal source of news in the morning in Great Britain — much more than television," Naughtie said by phone from Washington, D.C.
Before his radio career, Naughtie was chief political correspondent of The Guardian in London, and he has been a Laurence M. Stern Fellow at The Washington Post.
Naughtie has written a book about the subject he knows better than almost anyone: Tony Blair, the current prime minister of Great Britain.
Aptly titled "The Accidental American," the book analyzes Blair's career and treats the so-called "special relationship" between Blair and President Bush, leading to the pre-emptive attack by principally American and British forces on Iraq.
"The relationship is a contemporary phenomenon, controversial and surprising," said Naughtie. "When Gore was not elected in 2000, Blair was alarmed, because he and Clinton had been extremely close. He didn't know Bush at all. When he saw him at Camp David shortly after the election, he was hugely relieved to find that they got on together.
"Blair is an instinctive politician with a short attention span. He likes to make up his own mind, sometimes quite slowly. He discovered that he and Bush were both informal in style and decision-making. Blair also found Bush's openness refreshing. Blair is quite a relaxed character — the first prime minister who can wear jeans without looking silly. His is an unstuffy approach. From the beginning, Blair found Bush very easy to relate to in private. He says, in private, 'What you see with Bush is what you get.' "
When 9/11 occurred, Naughtie said, "The friendship was made deeper by the confluence of events. It was almost as if it were baked like a piece of china, fired by the incredible heat of the crisis. Now Blair feels an enormous debt to his colleague."
The problem for Blair in Naughtie's view is the consistent British opposition to the Iraq war, both from British politicians and the public. "Blair will always be the junior partner to Bush, as Winston Churchill was to Franklin Roosevelt — but it was pretty clear to the British what Churchill got from FDR. That relationship saved Europe.
"It's a much more difficult situation for Blair. At home people are asking, 'What have you got out of this? You supported a policy that has become a nightmare!' And his only credible answer is that he got satisfaction that he did what he believed to be the right thing — and in the long run, the Middle East will end up a better place."
Naughtie has also resurrected the alleged disagreement with Bush and
Blair by Colin Powell, the U.S. secretary of state. Naughtie has numerous sources from "the intimate circle of Jack Straw and Colin Powell" who reveal that Powell was angry at Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (calling them "crazies") for promoting the Iraq war without international allies.
Straw is British foreign secretary, Powell's counterpart. According to Naughtie, Straw and Powell talked almost every day during the lead-up to war, and "they saw eye to eye. Powell was livid about the decision to go to war too soon. Straw and Powell also thought the Pentagon was unrealistic in saying Americans would be greeted by Iraqis as liberators. There is no question that Powell is the odd man out in the Bush administration."
As far as the American election is concerned, Naughtie thinks Blair will fare well with either Bush or Kerry — even though the Democratic Party is "sore at Blair" for his support of Bush. If Bush is re-elected, he and Blair will continue to work together. If Kerry wins, "Blair will be gambling with him on the beach in Nantucket within a few weeks. They would get on extremely well.
"Blair could be helpful to Kerry, too. He is only 51. Yet he's been around awhile, and been in the thick of debate on all international issues."
Then there is always the possibility that Blair will lose out in the next British election. A majority polled in England have always been against the Iraq war. But Naughtie thinks Blair will win re-election anyway. "If the election were held today, he would most certainly win it. Most believe there will be an election next year, and that he will be re-elected.
"Blair is a great survivor. He's resilient. He's good. He's tough — and he can make political deals, but he has a very emotional component. He's an actor, in touch with the dramatic side. He responds well to moments. He can find the words and gestures to touch people. That's the authentic Blair."