Jewish World Review July 13, 2000/10 Tamuz, 5760
When a teenager doesn't need a prime minister
EVERY MOTHER and father who's gone through the anxieties of surviving a teenager felt a wave of
sympathy for Tony Blair, the British prime minister, when his 16-year-old son Euan was found by
police late the other night in London's Leicester Square, drunk and face down in a puddle of his
This was the kind of story most editors and even broadcasters would treat sympathetically: "There
but for the grace of G-d goes one of our children.'' It's hard enough raising a teenager, and raising
one in the public spotlight has got to be a lot harder.
It had been a bad week for the PM. You could understand (if not forgive) his advisers and spinners
for thinking Euan's humiliation was a gift for the father, diverting attention from mistakes of state, and
maybe creating a climate of commiseration with the father of a teenager.
"The whole thing is grisly for Euan,'' one Laborite told The Times of London, candidly, "but the
second I heard the news, I knew it was good for us.''
It didn't quite turn out that way.
Expressions of sympathy quickly turned to criticism for the way the prime minister exploited the
problem for political advantage. He added several "spontaneous'' passages to a speech he
delivered to black church leaders in Brighton.
"The values you represent are the values we all share -- respect, tolerance, the family, trying to
bring up children properly.'' The crowd tittered, not sure whether to laugh or nod affirmatively. The
PM, with the timing and performance skills approaching those of his pal Bill Clinton, sensed the
urgent attention of his audience. He ad libbed a little more.
"That bit was written a short time ago, but, you know...being a prime minister can be a tough job,
but I always think that being a parent is probably tougher. Sometimes you don't always succeed, but
the family to me is more important than anything else.''
The church leaders erupted with a standing ovation, punctuated with the cry of "Hallelujah,'' their
gratitude for being patronized by such a celebrity. When a baby in the back of the hall cried out, the
prime minister, the father of infant Leo, responded as if on cue: "I feel right at home.'' If the baby
was a plant, a spinner earned his pence for the day.
The speech was a tour de force that, after the public thought about it for 24 hours, began to sour.
The prime minister had gone too far in reviving the memory of his son's humiliation to enhance the
father's image and the public no longer felt disposed to ignore the son's problem or to treat it
gingerly. The father who should have put to rest references to his son's drunkenness, to protect the
boy's feelings, instead restored a dying story to the front pages. Suddenly it didn't sound so much
like the family was more important than politics.
"Schadenfreude is a nasty, spiteful emotion,'' wrote columnist Minette Marrin in the London Daily
Telegraph, defining the German word for taking pleasure in another's misfortune. But she confessed
that schadenfreude was her first emotion on hearing of the tarnish on the Blair's "holy family image.''
The Euan incident inevitably recalled that in 1997 the newly elected Labor government announced
plans to compel parents of young offenders to take "parenting lessons'' to curb teenage crime.
Were Mr. and Mrs. Blair now ready to be tutored in how to keep a child from underage drinking?
But what really steamed the Brits was the fresh remembrance of Blair's proposal, made while he
was in Germany, for punishing the drunk and disorderly soccer hooligans who have given the
English a bad name all over Europe: He suggested that police seize the offenders and march them
off to ATM machines to pay a fine on the spot. Overlooking logic for a moment, the proposal
would bash basic civil liberties, and it was the cops who shot down the idea.
His growing cadre of critics suggest that the prime minister suffers from "late baby syndrome.'' He
and his wife are at the height of their professional careers, and infant Leo needs a dad and a mom
more than he needs a PM or the brilliant barrister his mom is said to be.
"He and Cherie keep having the baby in bed with them, and as soon as he sniffles that's the end of
their sleep,'' one close friend told a London newspaper. The prime minister, who was much mocked
for considering taking paternity leave for Leo's birth, lately hasn't been himself. He has flubbed his
lines on several occasions. When he wanted to honor the Australian prime minister, he referred to
"American heroes'' instead of "Australian heroes.'' In another passage he boasted of his dedication
to "spin, not substance.' (Freudian slip?)
Maybe he ought to take paternity leave after all. Dad, not the boys, needs a
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©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate