It’s rare that politics induce nostalgia, but suddenly something about the Clinton era seems rosy.
A freedom of information request from the BBC has unearthed transcripts of conversations between President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair that took place from 1997 to 2000. That was a time before 9/11 or the credit crunch, when the West was still prosperous and at peace. I was a teenager. I didn’t write for newspapers back then, I delivered them.
The two men obviously enjoyed the sound of each other’s voice. It must be incredibly lonely at the top: surrounded by security, never allowed to go out alone. Talking to someone who understood the pressure must have been a joy — especially when there was a common worldview to bond over.
Clinton rose from poverty; Blair was a child of privilege. But they both came of age in a world shaped by the 1960s: socially tolerant, liberal, almost contemptuous of formality.
They called each other “bud” and “mate” and discussed their wives. When Bill learned Cherie Blair was pregnant, he dubbed Tony “Dad” and offered to babysit. They enjoyed a weird running gag about fruit: “My staff won’t let me talk to you unless I have a banana at hand,” said Clinton in one call. “I’m sitting here with a banana; it’s a big, ugly, brownish one.”
And they shared a touching moment of reflection after the death of Diana. Blair told his counterpart that it was like “a star falling.” It was certainly a huge moment for us in the UK. We were never quite the same again.
When it came to international affairs, one senses that Blair was soaking up good advice. If only he had listened! Vladimir Putin, warned Clinton, could well go “squishy on democracy.” Bill was closer to Boris Yeltsin, who gave lunches to remember: “He served roast pig and told me real men hack off the ears and eat them. And once he served 24 courses, including moose lips.”
Clinton also predicted that the Northern Ireland peace process could unravel if the ex-terrorists weren’t given enough to do. Most impressively, Clinton spotted that Iraq “could become a real nightmare for you.” He also said: “We’re going to increasingly have to deal with terrorists with no ties to any nation state.”
All of this came to pass, but with a subtly different dynamic in a later White House. Blair and Clinton were close but not nearly as close as Blair was with George W. Bush, who slipped into the presidency in 2001.
Blair had often pushed Clinton towards greater interventionism in foreign affairs — seeing Britain as the moral guide for the Atlantic alliance. Clinton resisted somewhat. Bush, empowered by 9/11, was totally on board with the neoconservative project. Blair’s enthusiasm for the Iraq War, long before it was launched, is well documented.
He lent his formidable political talents to help Bush sell the conflict. He also lent the lives of British soldiers to fight it. The Prime Minister’s actions betrayed all the promise he once showed in the 1990s. They explain why many Brits can’t say his name now without curling their lip, without making “Blair” sound more like “B-liar”.
But, then again, politicians do trade in deceit. Even Clinton and Blair might have misled one another. Some of these conversations occurred at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when Clinton’s administration was paralyzed by Republican attacks and the President’s lies. Yet Lewinsky is never mentioned in the transcripts. Not once.
Noticing what was not said is a good antidote for the nostalgia. Individual historical documents read in isolation rarely give the full sense of an era. Context is missing. The 1990s were great in some ways, miserable in others. I, for one, broke my nose in an accident. It’s never looked the same way since.