In US Visit, 'British Bill' Seeks Clinton Nod in Bid for Top Job
LONDON — AMERICANS this week have a chance to open their eyes and ears to the youthful Tony Blair, who is widely tipped to be Britain's prime minister a year from now.
But from Wednesday through Friday, in a schedule packed with political meetings and TV interviews, the leader of the opposition Labour Party will be as keen to impress voters back home as to beguile members of the US public and impress the cream of Washington's political establishment.
Alastair Campbell, Mr. Blair's press secretary, says that for British politicians with their eye on 10 Downing Street, visits to the United States can be "make-or-break affairs" in domestic political terms.
Mr. Campbell recalls the time nine years ago when, as a member of the British press corps, he watched Neil Kinnock, then Labour's leader, seriously mishandle a meeting with President Ronald Reagan who gave him only a few minutes of his time. The effect on Mr. Kinnock's hopes of becoming prime minister, another Blair aide says, were "devastating."
"Later that year Margaret Thatcher, who was always a big hit at the Reagan White House, swept back to power with a 100-seat majority in the House of Commons," the aide said. "We are determined the same thing will not happen to Tony Blair."
On the eve of Blair's departure for the US, his Conservative Party opponents, who know Prime Minister John Major must call a general election not later than April next year, were doing their best to ensure that the Labour leader received a rocky ride on the other side of the Atlantic.
They sent selected US journalists a briefing paper highlighting what they called Blair's "un-American activities" before he became Labour leader.
The dossier recalled that in the 1980s Blair and his wife, Cherie, had been antinuclear activists. It claimed also that Blair had opposed the 1986 US air attack on targets in Libya and had been against British support for the US in Operation Desert Storm against Iraq's President Saddam Hussein.
Labour Party officials, while not denying the document's contents, reacted furiously.
A senior party spokesman called it "a disgraceful smear" and claimed Blair was the target of a "dirty tricks campaign" reminiscent of "McCarthy-era witch hunts" in the US.
But Brian Mawhinney, chairman of the Conservative Party, called the dossier "factual" and its contents "well-documented."
"If Mr. Blair is ashamed of the things he has said, will he now withdraw them?" he added.
For Blair, the US trip is an opportunity to project an image the exact opposite of what the Conservative Party document alleges.
After Labour's 17 years in the political wilderness as an opposition party - much of that time advocating state socialism and unilateral nuclear disarmament - Blair wants the party to hew to a moderate ideology, shorn of the left-wing shibboleths of the past.
In his two years as party leader, he has sharply reduced the influence of trade unions, and swung the party he calls "New Labour" toward pro-European policies and commitment to a mixed economy of private and state-owned industry.
As he heads towards the coming general election, Blair has coined the term "stakeholder society," meaning that all citizens should be allowed and encouraged to play an active and constructive part in the nation's life.
A member of the group of advisers traveling with Blair to the US said: "It is important that this new thinking gets across to Americans, from President Clinton down. Under Blair, Labour has changed from a party in seemingly endless opposition to being a government-in-waiting."
In Washington, Blair and his team already enjoy an edge over Prime Minister John Major, whose relations with the Clinton White House have ranged from icy to seldom better than lukewarm.
In the 1992 presidential campaign, Britain's Conservatives sent a group of political strategists to the US to help George Bush's campaign against candidate Clinton. In the early months of the following year, Mr. Major was made to wait before Clinton agreed to meet him.
Last year, when the US gave Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams a visa and arranged meetings at the White House, a furious Major for some days refused to take Clinton's phone calls.
It is unlikely that Blair will develop the kind of intensely warm relations with Clinton that Margaret Thatcher enjoyed for eight years with Ronald Reagan, but there are facts in his favor.
He and Clinton are both Oxford University-educated politicians who grew up in the postwar era. Clinton the saxophonist may be able to swap musical reminiscences with Blair, who was a member of a university rock group called the Ugly Rumours.
The climax of Blair's US trip will be a visit to the White House where Clinton and Vice President Al Gore are scheduled to see him.
Nor is there much evidence that the British Conservative Party's attempt to undercut the visit with its "un-American activities" dossier has had much impact. British-born John O'Sullivan, editor of the conservative National Review and a former Thatcher speech writer, told the London Times that he had received a copy of the dossier but thought it "sensationalistic." Its allegations were "true but trivial."
"No one really believes Tony Blair is the man he was in the 1980s," O'Sullivan told the Times.