Mary Dejevsky: A helping of homeliness in the dining room

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The Independent Online

It wasn't Big Bill Clinton, but then it wasn't Cowboy George W either, and thank goodness for that. It was a more modest, homelier chap altogether, one better suited to our more modest, homelier country, who strode to the lectern in the Downing Street dining room, donned his Sven-specs and made believe that he was just one of us.

From the rose-pink and white tie – as close to a St George's motif as you could get without offending the Scots, Welsh and Irish – to the uniquely Blairite mixture of bashfulness, reflection and cockiness, our Tony was (mostly) on best dispatch-box form. Perceptibly nervous to start with, he settled into his rhythm. He tried to play it straight; with some "big-picture" and "constructive engagement" exceptions, he steered clear of wonkishness – and when he joshed, the ladies and gentlemen of the media (predominantly gentlemen, it should be recorded) joshed back. Sometimes they even offered follow-up questions.

American journalists don't behave so informally in the presence of their President, not even the most self-important of the White House press corps. They stand deferentially for the president's arrival, and they follow-up their questions only hesitantly. There is nothing like conversation. American presidents don't do familiarity, not even Big Bill (even though as a candidate he gave details of his preferred style in underpants), and especially not Cowboy George, even though he has honoured his favourite and least favourite journalists with nicknames.

American presidents think themselves into press-conference mode by walking the long, carpeted corridor to the double-doors of the East Room, gathering authority as they go. And when they arrive at the flag and the lectern – Tony, where was your flag? – they keep the dignity of distance. Only the redoubtable "Helen" (Helen Thomas, formerly of UPI, and into her 80s) has earned the right of reply, like the right of first question, thanks to longevity.

There were times yesterday when it was hard to believe that Mr Blair had not taken a crash course in Clintonian media-wizardry before stepping out – or maybe he just absorbed lessons in technique at his side. He has mastered the on-off trick with the glasses. When the glasses failed, a china tea-cup was waiting, and then an American-style glass of water. He had the hand gestures off-pat, too. The lesson is that if you wave your hands around, palms towards the camera, you come across forceful and sincere, especially on television.

It works in America – and in Britain, effected with style, it has the added dimension of making you look just a tad European. Indeed, Mr Blair may have leant just a little too far towards Europe than was wise for the national mood. Not only was a quorum of Europeans invited to ask questions – to be rewarded with answers replete with euro-ambiguity – but since when did any self-respecting Briton say "canard" when what he clearly meant was "red herring"?