They were just like any other middle-aged buddies having a gossip, calling one another “mate” and “friend,” and swapping news on their kids, wives and jobs.
But this was no ordinary bromance. It was an intimate and trusting relationship between former President Bill Clinton and his political soulmate, Britain’s ex-prime minister Tony Blair, as they led their nations at the turn of the century.
Transcripts of phone calls and in-person meetings newly released by the Clinton Presidential Library show the two leaders slogging through high-stakes diplomacy and interspersing tidbits about their lives in the gilded cages of the White House and 10 Downing Street.
One moment, Blair and Clinton are wrestling with war in the Balkans or stalled peace moves in Northern Ireland – the next they are gabbing about getting the U.S. leader to babysit for Blair’s infant son, Leo, or are interrupted by Clinton’s beloved mutt, Buddy.
The 532 pages of heavily redacted transcripts, released following a freedom of information request by the BBC, also show Clinton sizing up his future successor George W. Bush, who he viewed as “smart” but not ready to be president. And they reveal his frustration with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the president’s agonizing about deploying military forces abroad and his preoccupation with the growing threat from international terrorism.
Here’s a look at the highlights:
Statesmen at work
Blair and Clinton repeatedly discuss the boiling geopolitical crises of their day and swap notes on foreign leaders. They become preoccupied with the Balkans and the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia to halt human-rights abuses by its forces in Kosovo in 1999.
At one point, Clinton reveals his fears about sending American troops into battle, recalling how his intervention in Somalia early in his first term scarred him emotionally and hurt him politically after Americans were killed.
“This was the lowest point of my presidency. It was a goddamned nightmare. I felt personally responsible for that kid’s body being dragged through the streets,” Clinton tells Blair.
The leaders also talk after the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO planes in May 1999.
“This was a ‘great’ day wasn’t it?” Clinton tells Blair during a call placed from Air Force One. The British leader replies: “I am afraid these things happen … it is bad, but we have just got to steady our nerves on it, really.”
In a later call in April 2000, the two leaders share their impressions of new Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Blair tells Clinton that Putin had been anxious to impress him when they met.
“He wanted to see America as a partner, I think,” he said.
Clinton replies that he thinks Putin is a “guy with a lot of ability and ambitions for the Russians. His intentions are generally honorable and straightforward, but he just hasn’t made up his mind yet.”
But in a prophetic comment, Clinton warns Putin “could get squishy on democracy.”
The transcripts also show Clinton strategizing how to deal with Iraq, as he tells Blair he told another Middle Eastern leader to explain his views to the Iraqi President.
“I told him to go to Saddam, call him and tell him that I have no interest in killing him or hunting him down. I’m not fooling with him. I just don’t want his chemical and biological program going forward,” Clinton said.
Occasionally, the transcripts reveal a more coarse side of Clinton’s lexicon.
“The Central Americans and the Caribbeans sound like a boys school argument. They ought to be thinking about making common cause and not pissing down each others’ leg to see who has the biggest bananas,” Clinton said at one point.
The President also delivers a prescient warning about the growing threat from international terrorism after reaching Blair late at night after an IRA bomb killed 28 people in Northern Ireland in August 1998.
“We’re going to increasingly have to deal with terrorists with no ties to any nation-state,” Clinton says, noting he has been dealing with Al-Qaeda strikes in U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
“We could be dealing with these people, like in those old James Bond movies with SPECTRE and Dr. No. We’re going to have a twenty-first century version of those.”
As two of the most gifted politicians of their generation, Blair and Clinton often compared notes on their trade.
In fact, the first recorded call between the two men comes within hours of Blair winning the premiership in 1997, and the Briton seems euphoric and dazed. He also acknowledges the debt the European center left owes to the path blazed by Clinton’s New Democrats, saying “Well, you showed the way.”
Clinton appears to take a close interest in Blair’s domestic political scene – and at one point even jokes he’d like to retire to a safe seat in Parliament.
“What I want, is that when I am done here to be made an honorary UK citizen and give me a seat from Scotland next door to a good golf course,” Clinton quips.
Blair, who later became as close to President George W. Bush as he was to Clinton, becomes curious about the Republican as the years wear on.
Clinton tells Blair in October 1999 that he’s trying to work out how to “expose the fraud that Bush is the new Clinton, establishing a new Republican party like I made a new Democratic party.”
Seven months later, Clinton says, “Bush is a skilled politician, but he is not ready to be president, maybe not ever, certainly not now” and tells Blair he is sure that Vice President Al Gore will win the election.
But the President acquires grudging respect for Bush’s political operation, telling his British friend in May: “Bush is really smart. The campaign against McCain was the most vicious in modern memory. He has these right wing foot soldiers do his dirty work, so he can be nice.”
The close relationship between Blair and Clinton and their wives Cherie and Hillary is also revealed in the calls.
In 1999, Clinton asks Blair where he wants to bunk down when he visits Washington.
“Do you want to spend the night at the White House? Or at Blair House? …. You can sleep in the same bed Churchill did,” Clinton jokes, and recalls a famous episode when the wartime prime minister was said to have appeared in his birthday suit before President Franklin Roosevelt.
“As long as you don’t parade around naked before the bath. You’re too young and too trim,” says Clinton, who in another call had ribbed Blair on his “choirboy look.”
The U.S. President also shows great interest in the arrival of Blair’s young son, Leo, who was born in 2000 when his parents were in their mid-40s.
At one point, Blair tells Clinton that his pregnant wife “is in great form but just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
“I tell you, just the thought and I feel as if my life’s about to begin again,” Blair confides.
Clinton, with the end of his presidency in sight, proposes another job.
“You know, after January I’m available for babysitting duties,” he tells Blair.
“Right Bill, we’ll put you down on the babysitting list now, mate,” the prime minister replies.
The roles are reversed in another call when Clinton confides in his friend how tough it was to send his daughter Chelsea off to college.
“She’s very happy. She called last night and we had a good talk. It’s a three-hour difference, so she always calls late, but she knows I’m always up late,” Clinton says.
With his daughter away, Clinton compensated for her absence with his chocolate labrador, Buddy.
At one point, he breaks off a conversation with Blair to let his pet answer the call of nature.
“The Russians keep saying … can you wait a second?” Clinton asks.
Blair replies: “Taking care of Buddy are you?
“Yes, he’s got to go outside. I have a door right here. I will let him out … Sorry.”
Though they are clearly on the same wavelength, there is little indication in the transcripts that Blair and Clinton discussed the aftermath of the U.S. leader’s impeachment over his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which severely strained his marriage.
But in one possible reference to the firestorm, in December 1998, Clinton says he is looking forward to getting “all this crap behind me.”
Blair often asks about the then-First Lady and the President expresses his pride in his wife after she wins a New York Senate seat in 2000.
“Hillary is doing great, happy as a clam,” he tells Blair who replies “She was just fantastic during the campaign. She was so strong and brave.”
Death of a Princess
One of the most fascinating calls between Blair and Clinton takes place on September 1, 1997 when the President reaches the Prime Minister after hearing about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car accident in Paris.
“It’s a grim business,” Blair tells Clinton, who had reached out from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.
“It’s awful, it’s really awful,” the U.S. President says, before telling Blair he is worried about Diana’s sons, Princes William and Harry.
Blair describes William as “a great kid” and bemoans the way Diana, ex-wife of Prince Charles, had to live her life in a “press frenzy.”
“It’s impossible to contemplate how intrusive it was, into every single aspect of her life.”
“I will personally miss her, it’s like star falling,” Blair said.
The two men finish off their call in their usual way.
“Take care, friend, Bye,” Clinton says, and Blair replies “Goodbye Bill. All the best.”