Free speech in a free country means we can criticize public figures because they're, well, public. It's almost a duty that goes with the territory. The criticism may be unfair, exaggerated and purely partisan, but open debate usually enables everyone to sort everything out, by listening closely to the words as a guide to the motives of the politicians.
That's why public persons have to use common sense, which is usually scarce. Agree or disagree, we have to believe leaders are "one of us" in the most human sense if they want our sympathies. Most men and women can overcome ruthless attacks in the media if they're not actually shady. But degree is everything. The drip, drip, drip of unflattering details can gouge out a large hole, particularly when the drips encompass sex, power, money and goofiness (though not necessarily in that order).
So it has come to pass for Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in what the English press has inevitably dubbed Cheriegate. The drips haven't drowned the first couple, but the unhappy couple has required more than an everyday bumbershoot against the storm.
Too bad for us, she embarrasses her husband at a time when he is particularly vulnerable for his support of President Bush's policy toward Iraq. In her tearful confessional, Mrs. Blair said that she juggles lots of balls in her daily life (unlike the rest of us) and "sometimes some of the balls get dropped." This time they landed on her husband's foot.
Drip, drip sex. Carole Caplin, who is Cherie Blair's good friend and identified relentlessly in the press as her "lifestyle guru," was once a topless model. Caplin's boyfriend, Peter Foster, who got the lifestyle guru pregnant, is a con man - think smoothie - with criminal convictions for selling fraudulent diet products. Cherie Blair didn't have to be at the top of her law class (though she was) to see she was swimming between Scylla and Charybdis. Her goggles fogged up.
Drip, drip money. The topless model's con man helped Cherie Blair buy two houses in Bristol. One is for the Blair's oldest son to live in while he attends university. The other is for an investment, a $790,000 property deal with a reported discount of $109,000 for taking two. While this sounds like a terrific financial deal, political foes of the prime minister in his own party complain that it's elitist and extravagant, coming at a time when Tony Blair wants to raise fees for a college education and won't give firefighters a raise.
Drip, drip power. Cherie Blair confessed that she telephoned Mr. Foster's lawyers on his behalf and looked up the court list to find out which judge would be hearing his appeal for deportation. She may not have planned to "use" her power, but a prime minister's wife, like Caesar's, must adhere to the spirit of the law as well as the letter, always aware that the sound of her last name echoes through the land.
Drip, drip goofiness. A prime minister's wife who engages in New Age rituals by wearing a bioelectrical crystal pendant to liberate blocked energies, receives a mud massage in the shower to reduce toxins, and faxes questions to her psychic for answers from the spirit world is probably harmless enough, but ripe as the target of merciless humor. What is she going to ask her psychic, one wag asked: "Should we go to war with Iraq?"
Unfortunately Cherie Blair's behavior gives grudging credibility to the question in a headline in the Times of London: "Should We Care if Mrs. Blair is Bonkers?"
Bad judgment does not make a bad person, but it sure doesn't help her husband with his enemies. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who gave up lawyering when she became first lady, ostentatiously using the levers of power at the "request" of her husband ("buy one, get one free"), Cherie Blair sought to keep her career separate from that of the prime minister.
As a self-made woman who rose from poverty to establish a career as a human rights lawyer, her shyness before the press and her desire to protect her children has made her a relatively sympathetic figure until now. This time she lied and tried to cover up her lies because she claims she wanted to be loyal to her friend. It's the cover-up, of course, that's always fatal.