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Lessons from Tony Blair’s Memoir

In his excellent memoir, A Journey: My Political Life, Tony Blair writes about his electoral victory in 1997:

We were very quickly appreciating the daunting revelation of the gap between saying and doing. In Opposition, the gap is nothing because “saying” is all you can do; in government, where “doing” is what it’s all about, the gap is suddenly revealed as a chasm of bureaucracy, frustration and disappointment … I was afraid because, at that instant, suddenly I thought of myself no longer as the up-and-coming, the challenger, the prophet, but the owner of the responsibility, the person not explaining why things were wrong but taking the decisions to put them right.

Blair’s words touch on a truth which those of us who have served in government, and especially in different administrations and in the White House, can attest:

A president’s capacity to control and influence events is often more limited than it’s imagined. It’s not unusual for presidential directives to be ignored or undermined by the bureaucracy. Thousands of personnel decisions, some seemingly insignificant, can come back to bite you. An administration is held responsible for what happens on its watch, whether or not that’s justified. Urgent, complex problems demand a response even if the information needed to act on them is incomplete. The political culture is unforgiving. And all presidents and their aides, like all people, are flawed and fallible.

When you’re out of power and in the opposition, these truths are quickly tossed aside or simply forgotten. Governing seems much easier when all one is doing is critiquing others in columns and blogs, in speeches and on television. Position papers are simpler to write than policies are to enact. This tendency is particularly pronounced among political commentators, many of whom have no first-hand experience at what it means to govern.

The appropriate role of the opposition party, as well as of the commentariat, is to hold those in power accountable. Some presidential decisions deserve criticism – at times scathing. So to argue that there should be a moratorium on expressing disapprobation would be unwise as well as unrealistic.

What is required, however, is perspective — the realization that being chief executive is more challenging than being a commentator on Hardball with Chris Matthews. And from time to time, it’s worth showing understanding and even some sympathy toward those who have, in Blair’s words, gone from “scaling the walls of the citadel, to sitting in the ruler’s palace in charge of all we surveyed.”

The Obama administration, which came to office after having set expectations at stratospheric levels, is now learning the wisdom of Blair’s words. There is some rough justice in seeing brought low by events a president bestowed with an unusual degree of vanity and who has been so unfair and unforgiving in his critique of others. Still, the truth is that Republicans, once they begin to take the reins of power again in November, will experience something similar. What Henry Kissinger called the “moment of charmed innocence” and the “exhilaration of imminent authority” is soon buffeted by events. And so all us, myself included, need to temper our judgments with the realization that explaining why things are wrong will always be a far easier task than putting them right.



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