'Tony Blair - he seems a sensible guy'

America gave the Labour leader a welcome worthy of a PM, says Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online
"He looks so young," more than one distinguished guest wonders over dinner at the British Ambassador's residence on Thursday, in honour of the visiting Tony Blair. But what do youth and inexperience matter on a night like this?

After a savage winter, spring is at last to be savoured in the capital of the free world. No less intoxicating, proceedings are briefly interrupted to allow the evening's main attraction to give a first reaction to his latest triumph, victory in the Staffordshire South East by-election. Not only is the man a winner, but many of America's mighty can now see it for themselves. God surely has been doing the scheduling for Tony Blair this week. And even the politically neutral Englishman in Washington may be forgiven for saying, "Not before time."

If truth be told, the Britain that now adorns America's TV screens and newspapers is a rather run-down little theme-park, full of strange, colourful but ultimately inconsequential events. Northern Ireland, in which the Clinton Administration has deeply involved itself, is of course the exception. Otherwise, our recent contributions to the omnivorous news cycles of the US mass media have been mostly tacky, bizarre and tragic - the continuing misadventures of the House of Windsor, mad cows and the massacre at Dunblane.

If only to that extent, Tony Blair has been a refreshing exception. Not that Blair-mania is sweeping the nation: neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post carried a word about his visit. But that is par for the course in a place where at a press conference with the Israeli prime minister, the principal question a US president had to answer concerned not the Middle East peace process, but allegations of past adultery. (The president in question was not the much-bruited philanderer Bill Clinton, for whom such badgering is routine. It was gentleman George Bush in August 1992.)

But by the cliquish, celebrity-driven standards of the two cities he has visited, Mr Blair has not put a foot wrong. Breakfast in New York with Henry Kissinger (therein lies true gravitas) to start the day on Thursday, and a drinks party here at the home of the journalist Sidney Blumenthal, the author of a glistening and much-noted New Yorker profile of the Labour leader, followed by the Embassy dinner attended by Colin Powell and others to wrap it up.

Yesterday saw more of the same - a 7.15am interview on Fox Morning News, where the capital's political junkies get their morning fix, to talk about the "stunning" by-election win, proof of New Labour's appeal across the political spectrum, "the ability to bring the country together, what we sometimes call One-Nation politics". Then it was breakfast with the editorial board of the Washington Post, and later a National Press Club appearance and a lunch thrown by Roon Arledge, head of ABC-TV news, to meet Washington's assembled punditocracy.

All that and a meeting at the White House with the President. Already a conventional wisdom appears to be gelling: "Tony Blair - he seems a sensible guy." America, in other words, is being reassured; this is a man you can go tiger shooting with. All in all, a fair day's work for Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair's chief of staff and a key planner of the trip, as he cashed in the contacts he had built up during his previous incarnation as a political counsellor at the embassy here.

But the meetings that mattered most here were those of which we heard least. In New York, the financier George Soros, forever remembered as slayer of sterling on Black Wednesday (16 September 1992), bestowed a public blessing of the foreign exchange markets upon Mr Blair, declaring that a Labour victory "would not cause a scare among international investors".

Not a word, though, has filtered out of the meetings with Robert Rubin, the Federal Reserve chairman, and Alan Greenspan, the Treasury Secretary, keepers of America's purse, whose trust in a Labour government will be no less important than that of Mr Clinton, with whom Mr Blair is so often compared. They too were perhaps startled by his youth - but impressed far more by his insistence that Labour is no longer the tax-and-spend party of old. For that reason, above all, a prime minister-in-waiting has been treated this week almost as a prime minister in office.