Where did it all go wrong? John Humphrys, the alpha male of the media pack, came over almost wistful when he interviewed Tony Blair on Friday. Ten years ago, he recalled, "you were the shining light on the hill". Today, cynicism and disaffection lie all around. "What's happened?"
The gist of the Prime Minister's answer was, "I'll tell you later." That was also the gist of his answer when asked what he thought of the police investigation into the alleged sale of peerages. When the police conclude their inquiry, he said, "I'd be perfectly happy to answer questions about it and what went on and so forth. All I would say to members of the public is: 'Don't believe everything that is ricocheting around the media in terms of what is supposed to have happened.'"
It does not require a huge effort of sympathetic imagination, however, to work out what Blair's answers will be when his Trappist vows expire. Humphrys got in a pre-emptive humph: "Don't tell me it's all got up by the press." That is not all Blair's argument will be, however, and it will deserve a more considered response when he fills it out. The most he would say, as someone who was "going out of politics", was "I think there is a question to do with the relationship between the modern media and the modern polity. There is an issue about the way we interact which is important for the future."
What is fascinating is that there is someone with some of the shining promise of the early Blair, and who is just going into politics, who provides a similar analysis of the same problem. His name is Barack Obama, and his book, The Audacity of Hope, is of much higher quality than the standard presidential candidate's essay on motherhood, apple pie and the American Way. In it, he ruminates on the gap between politicians and voters in the US: "Politics (and political commentary) not only allows but often rewards behaviour that we would normally think of as scandalous: fabricating stories, distorting the obvious meaning of what other people say, insulting or generally questioning their motives, poking through their personal affairs in search of damaging information."
Blair's half-concealed view is that the only time journalists have been held to account for their inaccuracies and distortions was the Hutton report. And even that has been swept aside by much of the media as a whitewash. He is not wrong that there is a problem with the anti-politics bias of the British media.
The distorting effect of that bias was demonstrated last week by the response to the news blackout on the Prime Minister's second interview with the police. It was reflexively reported in tones of high excitement as a patent infringement of press freedom, and some journalists berated the Prime Minister's spokesman for "misleading" them. But it was the police that had asked for it, and that did not fit the template for reporting the cash-for-honours inquiry. The template is that Assistant Commissioner John Yates is a courageous crusader for truth and a shiner of light into dark places. Confused, journalists scattered in all directions like ants whose path has been blocked.
The trouble is that the story does not fit the pre-cut narrative, which is, of course, Watergate. There are no similarities beyond the utterly facile, and usually untrue, observation that "it's not the original crime that does the damage but the cover-up". The whole point about Watergate was that low-level Republican party workers burgled Democratic party offices without the President's knowledge - but when Richard Nixon found out about it he ordered it to be hushed up, thereby becoming complicit in the original offence.
In the current British case the original allegation was that Tony Blair tried to give peerages to people who had been promised rewards in return for secret loans to the Labour Party. That turned out to be untrue - in the sense that the police have found insufficient (or no) evidence for it. Or so it would appear from the fact that police interviewed the Prime Minister as a witness, not a suspect, which suggests that they do not expect to charge him.
Even if charges are brought against the Prime Minister's associates, I think Blair will plough on. If there was a cover-up, the police do not seem to think Blair ordered it. "So you'll have to put up with me for a bit longer", as he told Humphrys. The only way his enemies will get rid of him a few weeks earlier than he wants to go remains a new and more violent spasm of rebellion by a majority of Labour MPs. It would be pointless and bloody, inflicting more damage on the party even than the current media assault that allows BBC journalists to ask incessantly how much damage the current furore is inflicting on the party.
He can surprise us with an apparent confessional honesty, only now it was a pride of an almost Berlusconian kind that shone through: "I am not going to beg for my character in front of anyone." A pride that flashed with an authentic arrogance: "Not even in front of the public, even though I obviously have a deep respect for the British people and it has been an honour and a privilege to lead them." (Not "serve them", note.)
As the end approaches, he cannot resist kicking out against being the target of the incoherent anger of modern life that takes various forms: road rage, air rage, politician rage, Blair rage. But the cooler half of his brain is still dominant, still insisting, as he did yesterday, that "the fourth election will not be decided by current events". As one of his still hopeful advisers told me, if there are no charges in the cash-for-honours inquiry, "it will be a footnote".
Blair has a little more short-term pain to suffer before he offers himself to the more forgiving and balanced judgement of history, and before the Labour Party buries all its bad stuff under his memorial stone.Reuse content