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Jewish World Review July 13, 2000/10 Tamuz, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

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 own vomit.

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 rest.


07/10/00: Abortion as cruel and unusual punishment
07/06/00: Surviving 'survivor' TV
07/03/00: Independence Day with Norman Rockwell
06/29/00: Here comes 'something old'
06/26/00: Waiting too long for the baby
06/22/00: Good teachers, curious students and oxymorons
06/19/00: Wanted: Some ants for Gore's pants
06/15/00: Like father, like daughter
06/12/00: Culture wars and conservative warriors
06/08/00: Return of the housewife
06/05/00: Hillary and Al -- playing against type
05/31/00: The sexual revolution confronts the SUV
05/25/00: Waiting for the movie
05/22/00: Pistol packin' mamas
05/18/00: Journalists and the 'new time' religion
05/15/00: There's nothing like a (military) dame
05/11/00: 'The Human Stain' on campus
05/09/00: We've come a long way, Betty Friedan
05/04/00: From George Washington to Mansa Masu
05/01/00: Gore's ruthless doublespeak
04/28/00: Doing it Castro's way
04/24/00: Women's studies beget narrow minds
04/17/00: The slippery slope of anti-Semitism
04/13/00: A villain larger than life
04/10/00: When mourning becomes an economic tragedy
04/03/00: The last permissible bigotry
03/30/00: Seeking the political Oscar
03/23/00: The gaying of America
03/20/00: Pointy-eared quadrupeds on campus
03/16/00: The shocking art of the establishment
03/13/00: Sawdust on the campaign trail
03/10/00: Campaign rhetoric of manhood
03/06/00: The Amphetamine of the People
03/02/00: Elegy for Amadou
02/29/00: With only a million, what's a poor girl to do?
02/24/00: The changing politics of change
02/16/00: Tip from Hillary: 'Let 'em eat eggs'
02/10/00: No seances with Eleanor
02/07/00: Campaigning like our founding fathers
02/03/00: When neo-Nazis have short memories
01/31/00: George W. -- 'Ladies man' and 'man's man'
01/27/00: Dead white males and live white politicians
01/25/00: Smarting over presidential smarts
01/21/00: A post-modern song for `The Sopranos'
01/19/00: When personality is a long-distance plus
01/13/00: French lessons in amour --- and marriage
01/10/00: Reaching for the Big Golden Apple
01/07/00: Liddy Dole as the face of feminism
01/04/00: Hillary: From victim to victor
12/30/99: 'Dream catchers' for the millennium
12/27/99: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence
12/21/99: The president as First Lady
12/16/99: Columbine with blurred hindsight
12/09/99: Homeless deserve discriminating attention
12/07/99: Casual censors and deadly know-nothings
12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate