Lots of ex-politicians write memoirs. But few are subjected to the sort of reaction that's greeted Tony Blair in the past week as he hawks his memoir, "A Journey
." As Britain's former prime minister navigates his way through the world's most disastrous book tour, there's reason to think that his legacy may be a good deal more complicated than his detractors would suggest.
At first blush, things would appear to be going from bad to worse for Tony Blair. On Sunday, he was pelted by eggs -- and shoes -- during his first public book signing
in Dublin. On Monday, he announced that he was canceling a book signing at a high-profile book store in central London
because of planned protests. And on Wednesday, a book launch party at the swank Tate Modern museum
was also canceled, again due to anticipated protests.
Oh, yes. And there's now a Facebook page -- 8,000-plus members strong -- for those who'd like to see Blair's book shelved in the "Crime" section at bookstores
Critical reaction to the book has been nearly as harsh. Writing in
The Guardian, columnist Polly Toynbee describes the timing of the release
as a "historic act of treachery to his party." (Blair's Labour Party is slated to meet later this month to elect a new leader.
) In The Daily Mail, Andrew Alexander concurs
: In laying bare the extent of the rivalry and animosity between Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, Blair has labeled Labour the "nasty party given to loathing and betrayal." According to Alexander, shedding that label will be an uphill battle for any future party leader to overcome.
Toynbee's Guardian colleague, Tom Clark, attacks Blair's memoir on policy grounds. Voicing a familiar complaint, he says that Blair has "forgotten what Center-Left means,"
and that the book only confirms that the ex-prime minister was always more concerned about "political market share . . . than he was about principle." But the overall reaction to Blair's memoirs are perhaps best summed up on The Evening Standard's op-ed page, which describes Blair as "a large, if flawed, figure who still has the ability to unsettle British politics."
There's no denying that Tony Blair is one of the most fascinating characters
to emerge in British politics since Margaret Thatcher reinvented the Conservative Party. He's a devout (converted) Catholic in a country largely full of in-name-only Protestants. He's an unapologetic hawk in a country where even the Conservatives tilt dove-ish. (Blair still defends his decision to invade Iraq
.) And he's unabashedly pro-American in a country where we Yanks are still often viewed as a distant -- and, at times, embarrassing -- cousin.
In a recent interview with The Daily Telegraph, Blair allowed that he would like to return to British politics, because at heart he is "a public service guy."
But elsewhere he has acknowledged that British politics has probably "finished with me" rather than the other way around
Public reaction to Blair's decision to donate all proceeds from his memoir to the Royal British Legion
(Britain's principal charity for ex-service members) suggests that he may be right on this point. In some circles -- most notably families of the more than 500 soldiers who died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while he was in office -- that donation has been decried as a "blood money" and a "PR stunt."
Still, despite all the opprobrium in his home country, Blair may have the last laugh.
He is, for starters, fabulously wealthy. He has built a lucrative career outside of politics as a highly paid celebrity speaker and consultant to American, European and Middle Eastern banks and financial houses. According to the article in The Telegraph, his estimated net worth is upwards of £20 million
($31 million). (He took a £2.5 million salary from JP Morgan Chase and a reported £2 million from Zurich Financial Services.)
In the political realm, even his critics concede that Blair fundamentally altered the face of British politics. Specifically, as his biographer John Rentoul points out, Blair succeeded in finally making the Labour Party electable
. Say what you will, but the man "got" politics.
Blair also continues to be a force in international peace-making. He was, in many ways, the linchpin behind the Northern Ireland peace process
. And he continues this role as Middle East envoy for The Quartet (the U.N., U.S., E.U. and Russia), most recently with a front-and-center seat at the peace negotiations
launched last week in Washington.
Finally -- and not trivially -- his book is a huge hit. "A Journey" shot to No. 1 on Amazon (UK)'s bestseller list on its first day in print
. According to Nielsen BookScan, it sold 92,060 copies in its first four days
on sale last week -- the best-ever opening week sale for an autobiography since the BookScan began keeping track in 1998.
Still, it's hard to watch Tony Blair and not feel that you are experiencing more of a phenomenon than a real person.
And perhaps that's his biggest legacy of all.
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