The empathy game

Blair might have Clinton's politics - but he still lacks the Clinton touch.

Christi Daugherty

Topics Politics

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Just about two weeks before what may have been the most boring election I’ve seen since Ronald Reagan wupped Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton was taking a victory lap through Europe, accepting the oh-God-please-come-backs of a worried world.

While he was generally rapturously received, in Warsaw a protester hurled an egg that walloped him on about the same quadrant of his person as did the egg thrown at UK deputy prime minister John Prescott the week before.

It was déjà vu all over again, except in how the two men reacted to their assaults. While Prescott struck out in wounded fury, Clinton busted a gut laughing. The photo in the UK Guardian showed him guffawing, yoke dripping down the shoulder of his expensive coat.

The incident, which was barely reported, set in sharp relief the contrast between New Labour’s legions and Clinton and his New Democrats. Blair’s folks may have based their revised political philosophy on Clinton’s centre-left perspective, but they missed a critical element. They got the basic mechanisms right, but they overlooked the beauty.

It is as if somebody told them about a watch, and they created the inner workings but forgot about the face. The Blair team is cogs and wheels; Clinton is a smooth, elegant Rolex.

What made Clinton extraordinary was his ability to reach people. His perfect responses to imperfect situations. His undeniable, irresistible warmth. Whether it was real or just gorgeous politics, I don’t know. But the sympathetic veneer – the immediate, unrehearsed reactions – made a nation love him. I have been in England a year, and I have yet to hear anybody say they really love Tony Blair.

I thought of this again when Blair encountered Sharron Storer, the outraged partner of the man suffering from cancer in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. As the scene played out on one news programme after another, over and over again I saw the prime minister’s face freeze up, as he shut himself down in the face of her anger. And again and again I saw her see it, too: her desperation at feeling she wasn’t reaching him, and her sense that he was her last hope.

Every time I cringed for them both. And for all of us. Moments like that lead people to feel more isolated than ever from their political leaders – separate and misunderstood. The strange thing was that everybody could relate to that woman – except, apparently, Tony Blair.

How differently Clinton would have handled that. Oh, I can see it now. The first startled moment when he was confronted, would have been followed by him asking her name, then her partner’s name; his down-home accent getting thicker by the second as it always does when he senses a threat. All the while he would be gradually working his way closer to her. What kind of cancer is he suffering from? And what was the hospital doing wrong? By the time he got around to telling her about his mama’s cancer, or his father-in-law’s suffering, and emotionally sharing his knowledge of the wretched side effects of chemotherapy, he’d have her.

As she sobbed, he would put his arm around her shoulders and say comfortingly, ‘Let’s go see him. Right now. I want to talk to him, and let me tell you something: we’re going to fix this’. Instead of being a political nightmare, it would be a dream come true. Five more points in the polls, and a nation nodding its head in satisfaction over a leader in touch with his population.

For all of Clinton’s flaws, he had one undeniable attraction. He made a nation believe one thing, true or false: ‘He understands.’ And therein likes the key. Because along with the sense that somebody in power understands a problem comes the impression that they will be able to fix it. It gives the populace confidence.

Like Sharron Storer, nobody seems convinced that Tony Blair understands the problems of the people of Britain. And because of that, nobody really believes that he will be able to fix them.

Christi Daugherty is an American writer and editor living in London.

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Topics Politics


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