We've all known occasions when someone does something she or he thinks endearing and is then dumbstruck by a quite unforeseen hostile reaction, but never has it been witnessed on this scale.
Cherie Blair, the wife of the former prime minister, has just published a memoir under the cute title Speaking for Myself. Anyone who writes an autobiography does so from some degree of self-love, hoping to win readers' hearts and minds and to become better liked as well as better known. In which case, this author must now be reeling.
It's hard to recall such a torrent of abuse, contempt, and sheer loathing, followed by the numb moment when "the nation tries to heal itself after the horror of the real Cherie," in the sardonic words of Gill Hornby. Other epithets about Cherie and her book culled at random from reviews, columns, and editorials include "grubby," "pathetic," "coy rubbish," "nadirs of tastelessness," "masterclass in utter hypocrisy," "meretricious, cynical, tawdry and horrible." No, they don't seem to like her very much.
As with the deadliest assaults on Hillary Clinton, which came from female stiletto heels, the most brutal denunciations of Cherie were from women. In the right-wing tabloid Daily Mail, Amanda Platell called her "a greedy, self-serving opportunist" whose "greatest betrayal is to her own sex." It's quite true that there is an absurd contradiction, with Cherie as with Hillary. Cherie calls herself a feminist, and she was admired by many of us when Blair became prime minister and she chose to continue her career at the Bar.
But just as, without her husband's name, Hillary might be a candidate for president of Vassar but not president of the United States (to borrow Maureen Dowd's phrase), so too a little-known barrister named Cherie Booth might be invited to address legal conferences for what's called an honorarium (Latin for "not much") or to write books for modest sums, but she would not pick up $150,000 for three U.S. speaking engagements or pocket $2 million for her memoir. As columnist Catherine Bennett has said, what Cherie likes to think of as her "enlightened self-assertion" always "rested on a very traditional foundation: her husband's career."
If Cherie expected some relief from the torrid tabs, she was disabused last Sunday, when the sisters laid into her all over again in the pages of the liberal Observer. Barbara Ellen began by saying that she had always found Cherie "flawed, shrill, a charm-free zone" and took it from there. On another page of the same paper, Bennett continued the demolition derby, wondering, "What can explain the obsession with gynaecological matters, and, even more so, with money?"
"Too much information" is an understatement with Cherie, and "gynaecological matters" refers to one episode in particular that has left the whole country cringing. The prime minister and his wife are asked to stay with the queen from time to time, sometimes at Balmoral, Queen Victoria's beloved castle in the highlands of Scotland. As happens at a diminishing number of august country houses, visitors' luggage is unpacked and things put away or laid out by footmen and maids. This has led to many an anecdote about what one wished one hadn't packed. In Cherie's case, that included the sponge bag containing her "unmentionables," as she calls her contraceptive equipment while mentioning it.
And so on their next trip to Balmoral, she was too shy to pack these aforementioned unmentionables, lest the royal servants gazed on them again. (Our own worldly ladies of the press, venturing where a man may not, have sarcastically wondered what on earth this kit could have been that she couldn't fit it into her purse.) As a result, little Leo was conceived in a royal bedroom, and Blair became the first prime minister in office when his wife had a baby since Lord John Russell a century and a half before. (That historical footnote is added to raise the tone.) All this is told us by a woman who for years never ceased to complain about media invasion of her own and her children's privacy. ...
Most people have difficulty seeing themselves as others see them, but there is something almost psychopathic about Cherie Blair in this respect: She has reached absolute zero when it comes to self-irony or self-knowledge. She tells us that she's "a good Catholic girl" while detailing her premarital as well as postmarital sex life. She retails offensive tittle-tattle about the queen and other members of the royal family, calling Princess Margaret "a stuck-up old slapper." (I shall one day provide Slate with a trans-Atlantic colloquial glossary, but slapper is roughly tramp.)
Our queen's late sister was a sad lady, it's true, in whose company some of us never felt much at ease, and who had a private life more eventful than satisfactory. But Cherie also tells us that at one time she was sleeping with three different boyfriends. They included the future prime minister, with whom she spent the night on their first date. One has no wish to be censorious, but in the circumstances, she might have hesitated to call anyone else a slapper.
She goes on at length about her deprived childhood in Liverpool while insisting, "I have no problem with saying I am a socialist." She then whimpers about the terrible difficulty of repaying a $6 million mortgage on the London house they acquired when Blair was still prime minister—and on top of which they've just bought a beautiful country house, formerly Sir John Gielgud's, for nearly $8 million.
Apart from the self-irony deficiency, all this only reminds us about the Blairs' remarkable greed—one of the characteristics they share with the Clintons, along with entitlement and self-pity—and the way that it has been fed. If anything, we in the press were negligent in investigating how the Blairs bought that first house, when it was obvious that they couldn't possibly afford the mortgage repayments from his official salary and her earnings combined. The answer is, of course, that it was bought in anticipation of the millions Blair would receive for his memoirs, along with at least $1 million a year from J.P. Morgan and another fat retainer that he picked up from a Swiss finance company within months of leaving office.
By Monday, a chastened Cherie said that she was surprised by the level of animosity her book had aroused, adding with absurd mock meekness that she had supposed people had forgotten about her. (Is that what she and her agent told the publisher when pitching the book?) I imagine that some Americans may also be surprised by the response to Cherie, but then there is a fascinating comparison between two countries and two couples. In New York a few weeks ago, I was discussing the implosion of Hillary Clinton's campaign with one of her better-known supporters, who said ruefully that Europeans might be puzzled, since they didn't understand the hatred the Clintons inspired among plenty of Americans. As Michael Kinsley wrote in Slate, "[T]he Democratic Party has suddenly turned on Bill Clinton with the ferocity of 16 years of pent-up resentments."
In much the same way, Labor stuck with Blair while he won three elections, only to find they had ended up with what George Monbiot in the Guardian calls "the most rightwing government Britain has had since the second world war." And so, many people have now turned on the Blairs with an equivalent resentment.
Quite apart from all the tackiness, merely by writing her book, Cherie has reminded us about "the utter vacuity, moral and intellectual," in Bennett's words, of what Cherie persists in calling "the New Labour agenda." And she reminds us also of how the Blair junta operated and of its moral standards. When Cherie had a miscarriage in 2002, no one would have known, apart from her family and friends. But Alastair Campbell, Blair's mephitic press officer (whose own loathsome diaries, published last year, provided another horrifying glimpse inside that junta), decided to leak this news to take the heat off during some political difficulty, and he did so with the prime minister's encouragement. While telling us this, Cherie professes to have been astonished by it, but this was the government, after all, another of whose flacks sent an e-mail on Sept. 11, 2001, saying that it would be "a good day to bury bad news." You wonder whether this woman noticed anything at all during those 10 years in Downing Street.
Maybe she didn't. Her autistic inability to understand how she appears is at its most extreme over Iraq. David Kelly, a government weapons expert, had spoken off the record to the BBC about the flagrantly mendacious way in which the Blair junta had cooked up the case for war. Campbell wanted to expose Kelly, even if that meant hounding him to his suicide, as indeed it did. In her book's most emetic passage, Cherie tells us that when the news came of Kelly's death, she consoled Tony: "You are a good man. And God knows your motives are pure, even if the consequences are not as you hoped."
As to the invasion itself, she told a friend, who, like most British citizens, didn't want the war, "If Tony tells me, as he does, that if we don't stop Saddam Hussein the world will be a more dangerous place, then I believe him, and in my view you and I should be supporting our men in these difficult decisions, not making it worse by nagging them." And she adds, "I always felt strongly that he should not apologise for something he believed to be right."
No need to worry. Blair has never apologized for anything he did, nor shown the smallest sign of penitence or regret. All the same, he is said to have been privately unenthusiastic about Cherie's book, and now, after the reception of "this catastrophically counterproductive apologia," as Catherine Bennett calls Speaking for Myself, he must be more than a little apprehensive about the reviews he is likely to get.