Diana is dead. Tony lives. Miracles have begun. The first on record comes, as so often with the Bible and Lives of the Saints, in the form of a cure. One Stephen Hill, aged 25, had barely spoken since he was four. He stuttered so badly that he was unable to speak. Fear of embarrassment paralyzed him before women. His feet were size "seven," a word he would stumble over so badly that he bought size eights. His life was lonely and miserable until Tony Blair, Britain's thrusting New Labor Prime Minister, on television. Hill recorded Blair's speeches and parliamentary appearances and replayed them often over three months. "His confident approach gave me hope," Mr. Hill said in The Daily Telegraph. "I practiced it in the mirror, imagining I was the Prime Minister ordering a cheeseburger or a pair of shoes. It took a lot of time and humiliation, but the results were staggering."
That Mr. Hill should choose a man agreed to be one of the most awkward and dull speakers makes his recovery all the more miraculous. (I'm advising the Vatican's canonization division to keep an eye on all this.) In the years ahead, as Tony denudes the National Health Service, more and more people will simply pray to him and suffer no more. When his government sells off schools to private companies and cuts teacher salaries, students starved of knowledge will turn to Tony, as Mr. Hill did in a mirror, and be enlightened. Miracles surround the man. They dog his every action and word. He saved children from drowning in Africa. Miraculously, the photographers captured the whole thing. (Vatican, buy those pictures for the files.) Tony saves whole countries - Ireland one day, Yugoslavia the next.
Britain contributed about ten per cent of the firepower over Yugoslavia. Tony miraculously wins one hundred per cent of the credit. Not for the war's real achievements: putting half the country out of work, destroying about twenty hospitals, thirty health centers, a dozen railroad lines, the state oil company reserves and its entire car manufacturing ability - as well as giving Slobodan Milosevic cover to expel Kosovo's Albanians. Not for the next achievement: pitting Nato and Russian troops (with two separate commands, the policy that backfired for the ill-conceived Multi-National Force in Lebanon in the early 1980s) against each other in Kosovo. No doubt the KLA will expect Nato troops to shoot at Serbs and Russians for them, just as the 100,000 or so Serbs left in Kosovo will ask the Russians to protect them from the KLA. Tony himself speaks, in a saintly way, of "a new moral cause." That is, putting the world to rights with the American air force and the British press. For London's journalists, this is a "defining moment" of adulation that the courts of Joseph Stalin and Kim Il Sung rarely achieved.
"Mr. Blair turns out to be rather well suited to fronting a war," columnist Anne McElvoy rhapsodizes in The Independent [sic]. "It brings out the stubborn, zealous and unbending streak which he developed in leading his own party." A little further to the left, Martin Walker of The Guardian pays tribute: "Tony Blair has vindicated his controversial stance as Europe's leading hawk." The Observer editorial writer seemed subdued by comparison, "It is peace and an honorable settlement " and, wait for it, "a defining moment It is a fine moment for him [Blair] and for New Labour."
For The Observer's columnist, Andrew Marr, that genuflection was insufficient. He went down on both knees: "Tony Blair's gamble, in sticking to clear, unambiguous promises at a time of maximum doubt was an expression of moral courage, which has been vindicated." Of course, Marr does not see himself as entirely lacking in critical faculties, going so far as to confess that he might once have been willing to see warts where others saw only the unwrinkled skin of the baby's bottom: "Yet, like many other people, I have been squinting" - surely a louche precaution where Tony is concerned - "at Blair every time he comes on the television looking suspiciously for signs of triumphalism, glee or self congratulation that is his normal mode." Surely not. Yet, Marr bravely continues, "So far, he passes the test." Phew. Marr meanwhile has no time for those who suggested the war against Yugoslavia was illegal, counter-productive and far from over. Blair knew how to deal with them: "He ignored them. He won."
Hugo Young, elder statesman at The Guardian, discovered and christened the Blair Doctrine, which paves the way for further Kosovo-like interventions for moral causes around the world. (Allies, beware.) To be fair to Young, he says Nato's commitment to Yugoslavia leaves it without forces to commit elsewhere. Nonetheless, he judges that Blair gave "a performance to reckon with."
The award for abject servility, however, goes to Sion Simon of the right-wing Spectator, writing in The Daily Telegraph. The weak of heart may skip the rest of this paragraph, but he really did write: " one of the pre-eminent statesmen on the planet the most heroically disinterested intervention in history This was a uniquely philanthropic war His implacable determination was the critical factor in the Nato victory. He is now a war leader resolute, decent, brave." Something is wrong, and it took me a little while to get the joke.
Okay, okay, finally, I get the joke. Stephen Hill either never had a stutter or modelled himself on Laurence Olivier. Hugo Young, Andrew Marr, Anne McElvoy, Sion Simon and the rest were pretending. Theirs is the subtle English art of "irony," making the truth obvious by stating its opposite. It took awhile, but I recognize the "Bulgakov stratagem."
Mikhail Bulgakov was one of Russia's greatest playwrights and novelists, but Stalin prevented him from publishing and working. By 1939, the author of The Master and Margarita had not been allowed even to read one of his plays to the Moscow Arts Theatre for the previous seven years. He was broke, and many of his friends had been executed. Luckily, Stalin liked one of his earliest plays enough to let him live. Suddenly, the Moscow Arts Theatre commissioned him to write a biographical play about the young Stalin. Stalin would later say, "Our strength is in having trained even Bulgakov to work for us." Bulgakov labored over the play, wrestled with his conscience and read it to the Committee for the Arts on 11 July 1938. "They listened with intense concentration. They very much liked it," wrote Anatoly Smelianksy, Bulgakov's biographer. The play, Batum, would open on 21 December 1938; and provincial theatres in Kiev, Kazan and Voronezh wanted to stage it as well. It sailed through the censors, and all that remained was the approval of The First Reader. Without comment, Stalin banned the play.
Stalin, unlike the sycophants he had placed in charge of the Arts and everything else, knew that Bulgakov's play was so gratuitously unctuous, portraying the dictator as a superhuman hero and saint, that the people would laugh. It would have them laughing at all the tripe in Pravda and the literary magazines that daily praised Stalin as "resolute, decent and brave." Those who said Bulgakov had sold out underestimated him.
So, I too may have misjudged the cunning British press. Far from cravenly propagating cant, they may have outfoxed it. I hope so.
© Charles Glass 1999