Comment: Tony and Bill find growing up is hard to do
Known for her human rights activism and writing on subjects such as atheism and feminism, Joan Smith is a columnist, critic and novelist. An Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a regular contributor to BBC radio, she has written five detective novels, two of which have been filmed by the BBC.
Sunday 01 February 1998
At the moment, especially after Robin Cook's splenetic attack on his former diary secretary, Anne Bullen, it is perfectly legitimate for Mr Hague to query the Foreign Secretary's judgement. It is not Mr Hague's fault that Mr Cook is currently the target of questions about the way he has chosen to conduct his private life, or his foolish decision to consider replacing Ms Bullen with his lover, Gaynor Regan. Nor is it improper for Mr Blair, who appointed Mr Cook, to be called to account on these matters. But his reaction recalled previous outbursts of bad temper by the Prime Minister - on Wednesday, Mr Hague called him "tetchy" - since the autumn.
Mr Blair's demeanour when people challenge him is pained and disbelieving. If the questioning persists, his manner soon shades into irritation. At his best, the Prime Minister has the kind of youthful, energetic charm that wins people over. When he is crossed, the charm switches off and his tone rises to a whine. He speaks faster and his accent - pure English public schoolboy - becomes more pronounced. The sunny, outgoing side of his character appears to be directly connected to the presence of an admiring audience.
When Mr Hague annoyed him this week, he responded like a sulky teenager who doesn't see why he should explain to his parents why he got in at four in the morning. This is ironic, given that Mr Hague is younger than Mr Blair. It is also puzzling behaviour from a Prime Minister who is not just a career politician but a barrister by training.
By Thursday afternoon, when Mr Blair went to the Commons to announce an inquiry into Bloody Sunday, his good temper was restored. His performance was statesmanlike, but, then, the only serious opposition came from the Ulster Unionists. This sequence of events raises a question I have been pondering since the general election: is Mr Blair grown-up? It is easy enough to be charming, or at least polite, when things are going well. The real test comes when a politician is under fire, as we were reminded by President Clinton's consummate State of the Union address this week.
On present form, Mr Blair is showing a worrying tendency to conduct himself like an adolescent. He likes being top of the class, but he is not mature enough to appreciate that being Head Boy carries responsibilities as well as privileges. His range of responses extends from an appeal along the lines of trust-me-I'm-a-prime-minister to schoolboy name-calling. Perhaps that is why he got on so well with the late Princess of Wales, who did so much of her growing up in public.
WHEN I mentioned these thoughts to a friend, who happens to be a psychoanalyst, he agreed - and added that he would rather be governed by Mr Clinton, whom he described as "a grown-up with infantile sexuality".
I'm not sure he is right about the last bit, in that sexual fidelity seems to be an impossible goal for so many adults. Does that mean they have all failed to grow up?
It strikes me that the difficulties we have been witnessing, on both sides of the Atlantic, stem not so much from the sexual appetites of individual men - or women who have a choice whether to have sexual relationships with married men like the President or the Foreign Secretary. The problem is much more to do with a confusion about marriage, which both men appear to support while behaving in ways which contradict its central contract of sexual fidelity.
I don't know whether this is because they truly believe in marriage, or whether there is still a perception that politicians have to subscribe to the mores of a previous generation. I would be far happier with a climate in which powerful men like Mr Clinton admit the truth about their sexual proclivities and spare us the awful spectacle of their wives fantasising on television about right-wing conspiracies. Perhaps Mrs Clinton really believes what she said, but to me it looks like denial on a grand scale. It would be far better if Mr Clinton admitted he has a non-monogamous arrangement with his wife, if that is indeed the case, than to continue with this cycle of accusations, denials and eventual admissions. (Of course Gennifer Flowers was telling the truth about her affair with Mr Clinton. Who ever believed otherwise?)
But that would require him to behave like a grown-up. Perhaps my friend was right, after all.
IN THE middle of all these allegations about sex and sleaze, I went to see Boogie Nights, the movie about the rise and fall of an American porn star. It has had ecstatic reviews, so I was startled to discover just how dull it is, so much so that the friend who went with me spent much of the film asleep. The direction is plodding, the characters rebarbative and it has a puzzlingly irrelevant soundtrack. (The Beach Boys? For a film set in the late Seventies and early Eighties?)
So, why did the critics think otherwise? There is an element of striptease, in that it isn't until the last few frames that Mark Wahlberg, playing blue movie star Dirk Diggler, hooks out of his trousers the 13in prosthesis which all the other characters are supposedly excited about. But for adults who have seen a penis before, indeed a variety of them, this is hardly a satisfactory explanation.
The film's success can, I think, be accounted for much more simply. If you say you've made a serious film about porn, it gives audiences permission to turn up at the kind of "adult" movie they would usually be too embarrassed to attend.
I'd rather watch footage of President Clinton, whose enthusiastic sexual appetite surely merits a fascinating documentary. Set in the White House, starring the President, who could bear to miss Boogie Days?
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