If you believed half the snarky descriptions the British press has slung at Cherie Blair, you'd have expected her to arrive in Southern California astride a broomstick, accompanied by flying monkeys.
Happily for the wife of Britain's former prime minister Tony Blair, just about the only baggage she carried to the New World on a recent visit was literal -- packing among other things the deep blue pantsuit she wore when she got a heroine's welcome at the annual women's conference led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver in Long Beach last month.
Most Americans don't know much about her beyond her character in the movie "The Queen," in which actress Helen McCrory can scarcely deliver a curtsy (Blair admits "my two left feet are not the best at curtsying") but still earns her envy ("Oh, I wish I was really that thin.") There was one more thing in her suitcase: her autobiography, "Speaking for Myself: My Life From Liverpool to Downing Street," released in Britain in the spring and here last month in an edition with a lot less political inside-cricket.
It's a personal book, not a political one, which has perplexed some British reviewers because she is so passionately political -- a Liverpool lefty, a human rights and women's rights lawyer who, in her own name, Cherie Booth, is a QC (queen's counsel), a high legal rank in Britain.
"I wanted it to be a woman's book," Blair says, sitting in her stockinged feet on the 10th floor of a Long Beach hotel. "I wanted it to resonate not with people who are political junkies . . . it's for my husband to write a policy book. I wanted it to be more of an insight to what it's like to have to walk this role in history."
It's been a bestseller in Britain, in spite of -- or maybe because of -- some acidulous reviews. One registered the top notes of Blairian disgust thusly: "As a Friesian weighing 1.37 tons applies to the 'Guinness Book of World Records' to be declared Britain's biggest cow, there is fierce competition for the title from Cherie Blair." But aren't all autobiographies about settling the score?
A confining role
Many Britons may not agree, but Blair thinks she's been pretty restrained these last 12 years. Being married to the prime minister can be "more of a constraint than a liberation, of course." Such as marriage "thrusts you into the limelight too, and you do have a platform. It's quite a delicate line to know how to use the platform to try to do good without trespassing on the areas that should be left to the elected politician. When you are an intelligent woman and used to having views of your own . . . to suddenly become voiceless because you then have a role not in your own right but because of who you're married to, to learn to strike that balance is I think . . . difficult." She had to keep in mind that "this isn't about you, actually what it's about is the prime minister and his agenda, and what you don't want to do is set up an alternative agenda, especially one that might distract from the one he wants to promote."
A forthright, career-minded first lady was already old news for Americans, who'd known Hillary Rodham Clinton for five years by the time the Blairs moved to Downing Street in 1997. And if she was holding back before, she isn't now. The full-bore unrestrainedness that has appalled some Britons could charm American readers. There's an Oprah quality to her narrative, from her struggle with weight to being the daughter of a scapegrace actor who abandoned his family and went on to father six -- or is it seven? -- other daughters.
She tells us that the husband she still has the hots for proposed to her while she was cleaning the toilet and that her youngest son was conceived when they were the queen's guests at Balmoral Castle. Blair had left her contraceptive gear at home because she had already learned the hard way that the royal servants always unpack the guests' luggage. The rooms were cold and "with one thing and another. . . ." Upon reading this, some Britons were crying, "Lèse majesté!" Americans may scoot closer and say, "Tell me more!"
The book is stuffed with bits like Vladimir Putin suggesting a boar hunting trip and grimmer anecdotes about travels to Kosovo or Afghanistan and the plight of women there. It explains her exasperation at reportage about her hats (or lack thereof). "Here we are worrying about whether we're thin enough or whether our bottom looks too big in this pair of trousers or even whether or not I should wear a hat -- does it really matter in comparison to the important things that are going on in the world?"
Blair seems like she might be good girlfriend material -- in one case, too good for her own good. A slightly louche girlfriend's beau turned out to be a convicted con man who got Blair into a real estate entanglement that forced her to apologize publicly. That's one of her two "do-overs." The other would be to have given interviews while her husband was in office instead of leaving a "vacuum" to be filled "by people who didn't know me."
From humble roots
When Tony Blair became prime minister, there was no chance of an Eliza Doolittle makeover. Cherie Blair was and is a working-class girl who used her brains and occasionally her elbows, with more American thrust than British reserve, to get where she is. Since leaving that most public of housing -- No. 10 Downing St. -- last year, the Blairs have acquired a seven-figure income and two seven-figure homes. They both have speaking and book engagements, financial security after a life of scrimping that she describes in detail.
It may be that like Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Blairs find more applause abroad than at home. Cherie Blair still sticks up for the man derided by protesters outside the Downing Street doorstep as "Blair liar" and "Bush's poodle" for his support of the Iraq war.
There on the hotel room sofa, in the California sunshine, it's as close as she gets to indignant. "Tony was never anybody's poodle. Tony supported America because he believed it was the right thing to do." He would have liked the United Nations' support, she adds, but she still "absolutely" supports his decision. "I know my husband, and I believe he made the right judgment on this issue."
And how did a decade at the top change her? "I think Tony would say he was astonished at how diplomatic I became."
Perhaps he was -- but not on the June day they left Downing Street. As she departed, she waved and told photographers, "Bye, I won't miss you!" In the car, her husband hissed, "You can't resist it, can you? For God's sake, you're supposed to be dignified; you're supposed to be gracious."