Watching British prime minister Tony Blair on TV last night, as he shared a White House podium with his longtime senior partner in war, I was struck by the fact that his famed silver tongue was no longer waxing eloquent about the mission in Iraq; that his once-boyish features now seemed as rumpled as an unmade bed; and that his once-buoyant grin had been replaced by the dour stoicism usually seen on a British bobby caught in a London downpour.
That's what happens when you hitch yourself to a falling star. All those years of being ridiculed as "Bush's poodle," coupled with reality-based evidence of mayhem in Iraq, have clearly taken their toll. You know that things must be going badly when a master practitioner of the English language decides to let the other guy do most of the talking. No wonder the respected Economist magazine now refers to Tony Blair and President Bush as "The Axis of Feeble."
It was clear that Blair was already hurtling toward lame-duck status a year ago, when I spent a week in Britain prior to the national elections. Voters in his own party, Labor, were furious with him for hanging tough with Bush on Iraq and refusing to admit error. I went door-knocking in southern Nottingham, a Labor stronghold, and quickly encountered a resident named Dave Smith, who set the tone for that evening:
"I've voted Labor all my life, but I won't do it again! Get rid of that Blair bloke! He's got that supercilious smirk, like he doesn't care how many people get killed! He lied to get into that war, just to be friendly to America! Stick him on an island, like what the French did to Napoleon!"
A week later, Blair's party was humbled at the polls, nearly losing all of its once-mighty Parliament majority, and it has been clear ever since that Blair's days are numbered. (In Britain, unlike in America, the political leader sometimes deems it wise to truncate his own tenure if it is is clear he has lost the confidence of the people.) Perhaps that explains why the PM showed little self-confidence last night, preferring at times to utter rare words of contrition.
Standing beside Bush, he admitted error on a key issue of postwar execution that has long been cited by his critics: The decision to quickly disband the Iraqi military, a move that allowed former Saddam Hussein loyalists to join (and fuel) the insurgency; a move that also sowed administrative chaos in what remained of the governmental infrastructure. Retaining his gift for British understatement, Blair said that this process could have been accomplished "in a more differentiated way." It was also noteworthy that Blair renounced the prewar talk of a cakewalk, saying instead that he should have better foreseen that "it was going to be a more difficult process" to build a "democratic Iraq."
As for Bush, he too ate a few slices of humble pie. That was in sharp contrast to his behavior on the night of April 13, 2004, during a press conference, when he resisted any suggestion that anything had gone wrong in Iraq. Asked to cite a mistake that he might have made, he shook his head twice and replied, "I'm sure something will pop into my head in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet." And it didn't. Instead, he added that "even knowing what I know today about the stockpiles of weapons, I still would've called upon the world to deal with Saddam Hussein."
Bush last night didn't renounce that statement, of course, but it was somewhat startling to hear him walk away from his 2003 Texas swagger - notably, his call to the insurgents to "bring it on." Two thousand American deaths later, that line apparently no longer seems politic.
So this time Bush said: "Kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people. I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner."
I had to replay that remark to ensure that I was really hearing it. Clearly, the president who always says he pays no attention to the polls, is paying attention to the polls. But I think there is something more: He is thinking about his legacy.