John Rentoul: Unlike Clinton, Bush fails as priest in the modern ceremony of death

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The Independent Online

Lucky for him that he is not facing re-election. The contrast is striking with Bill Clinton's response to the Oklahoma bombing 10 years ago - an act of human wickedness rather than of nature, but equally out of the blue.

How national leaders react to the unexpected can make them or break them. In Clinton's case it turned around a presidency in deep trouble. It might be called the "whisper in the ear" test. From the moment Mike McCurry, his press secretary, whispered in his ear during a photo opportunity with the Turkish prime minister, Clinton was focused. Both behind the scenes and in a televised statement that afternoon, the President was "tight and self-contained", according to John F Harris's history of his presidency, The Survivor. "This was not the flapping, self-absorbed Clinton that aides sometimes saw." The President declared: "We will find the people who did this." Luckily, the police did, pulling over Timothy McVeigh later that day for driving a car with no licence plates. "When we do, justice will be swift, certain and severe," Clinton promised. A poll for NBC News that weekend found that 84 per cent of Americans approved of his handling of the attack. It was a turning point on the road to Clinton's election for his second term, the following year.

Of course, Bush recovered from the paralysis that overcame him when Andrew Card, his chief of staff, whispered bad news in his ear on 11 September 2001, and he may do so this time. Nor does a failure of empathy or of rhetoric necessarily make him a bad president. But it certainly makes it much, much harder to repair the broken levees of Bush's reputation.

In his study of Clinton in the White House, Harris observes that Bush's predecessor had learnt the lesson of his passivity when the federal forces' assault on David Koresh's compound at Waco went disastrously wrong in 1993. "Two years later, Clinton better understood the expectations of his job and the role the presidency played in the national psychology in moments of shock or grief."

It is something Tony Blair understands instinctively. He and Clinton appear to sense shifts in public opinion before they happen. Both have been accused of short-termism in pursuit of headlines, but the corollary of that is that they are attuned to the way big stories play out in the media and hence to the impact they have on perceptions of themselves. Clinton's emotionalism could be cloying, but it was effective. Blair's thespian excesses are not to everyone's taste, but he is quick and, above all, definite. He found the words on 11 September when Bush seemed tongue-tied. It did not matter that the words of his "shoulder to shoulder" statement made little sense. Blair promised not to rest until this new evil of mass terrorism "is driven from our world". What mattered were the twin expressions of resolve and of solidarity with the American people at a time of fear and uncertainty. Likewise, there was more form than substance to his statement at Gleneagles after the London bombings on 7 July: "It is important that those engaged in terrorism realise that our determination to defend our values and our way of life is greater than their determination to cause death and destruction to innocent people." But his words helped shape the mood of defiance that was part of coming to terms with what had happened.

It was all the more striking, therefore, that Blair had nothing to say last week about the video recorded by Mohammed Sidique Khan, the London bomber. The shock of those murderous sentiments expressed in the vernacular reawakened fears of undetectable killers in our midst. Yet it was left to a mere apprentice of the empathetic arts, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, to offer the Government's only comment. That consisted of a peevish refusal to accept that Britain's part in the invasion of Iraq had made the 7 July bombings more likely.

You can see why Blair stuck to his script about anti-social behaviour in Friday's speech, however. As Kenneth Clarke ought to know perfectly well, the Prime Minister has never said that "the danger of attack on Britain has nothing to do with the war", as Clarke alleged. But it would be just as inflammatory for Blair to say emphatically what he really thinks, which is that the greater risk of a particular kind of terrorism has to be borne. As Clarke said, "I would have accepted that increased risk as the price of going to war if I had believed that we were driven to go to war for a just cause". For Blair - and for most MPs and, at the time, the majority of the British people - Iraq was a just cause. But to go down that line of argument would get Blair nowhere, with journalists itching to write "PM admits Iraq war increased terror risk". So it was better to leave it to the families of those killed on 7 July to respond to Khan's video.

That is the distinctive feature of empathetic politicians such as Blair and Clinton. They recognise that politics is about mood rather than argument. It was no use President Bush, in his first statement on the hurricane, listing all the things the federal government was doing. People wanted to know that he felt their pain and anguish at the growing disaster unfolding on their television screens. As Jean Seaton observes in her new book, Carnage and the Media, journalists observe surprisingly strict rituals in reporting violence and disaster. Rituals, she says, that "serve to stabilise moments of crisis". Politicians have an expected, unwritten part to play in those rituals, as the priests of modern ceremonies of death. Clinton and Blair understand that role. Last week proved that Bush does not.