Tumult Follows Blair to New York

There were no eggs, but the former prime minister was heckled with taunts of “Liar!” at an event with Katie Couric. Blair brushed off the protest, offering no regrets about the Iraq war but some special praise for Bill Clinton.

09.14.10 11:43 PM ET

Tony Blair brought his book tour to New York on Tuesday night but couldn’t manage to leave his troubles behind him.

In a conversation with CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric at 92nd Street Y, the former prime minister and Labour Party leader said he had no regrets about sending British soldiers to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. When pressed by Couric if he thought the war was the right decision, even though no weapons of massive destruction were found, Blair insisted that Saddam kept scientists available and laboratories working, ready to begin constructing nuclear and chemical weapons after inspectors left the country.

Fifteen feet from the stage, a woman stood up and yelled, “Liar! War criminal!” She shook a pair of handcuffs, strapped to her wrist. Before security guards could rush the protester out, Couric said, “Why don’t you let us finish this conversation?”

“It’s not just your methods of terrorism that is wrong,” Blair said of his message to extremists. “Your narrative is wrong. Your tales of oppression by us are wrong.”

Once she was gone, with two dozen police officers and security guards standing ready in case of further interruption, Blair said, “We can actually debate different views on Iraq without calling each other liars.”

Earlier in the evening, Blair repeated what has become his refrain during the tumultuous promotion trip: “Those that shout the loudest don’t necessary deserve to be heard the most.”

Back in the U.K., Blair’s memoir, A Journey, has caused a huge stir in the press—the kind of furor Americans can look forward to when George W. Bush publishes his Oval Office memoir in November. No detail has gone uncharted. The broadsheets have giggled over Blair’s apparent faux modesty: The book was originally titled The Journey, but it was decided A Journey better do the trick. The former prime minister has even been accused of stealing dialogue in his book—a scene with the queen—from the film The Queen (“I’ve told that story for many years,” Blair protests).

Even Blair’s decision to donate the book’s proceeds to charity has been called into question, with some seeing only a crass attempt to goose sales. If that’s the case, it’s been a victory for Blair: A Journey sold more than 90,000 copies in Britain in its first four days on the shelf—a record number since Nielsen started scorekeeping in 1998. And while Blair’s steadfast support for Iraq has received the most attention, his amorous professions for his wife, Cherie (I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct…), have not escaped scrutiny.

But Blair’s faced more threatening missiles than the darts thrown by the British press. Protesters hurled eggs, shoes, and bottles at him before a Dublin book-signing earlier this month. Inside the signing, one activist demanded a citizen’s arrest. Four were detained by police. Fearing further disorder, Blair called off a launch party and another event planned for that week in London.

11 Revelations from Blair’s MemoirCut to the United States, where in Philadelphia on Monday, Blair was presented with the Liberty Medal by the National Constitution Center. Former President Bill Clinton, partner in the Third Way, was on hand to do the honors. But perhaps Blair knew that the good feelings might be short-lived: A book signing planned in connection with the 92nd Street Y was canceled. Organizers blamed a scheduling conflict, but the decision also prevented any more of those citizen’s arrest attempts.

Behind a pair thick-framed glasses, Couric tried her best to get Blair to weigh in on the political controversies now roiling the U.S. On the question of whether the Islamic community center should be built near the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Blair walked an Obama-like tightrope.

“I honestly believe that you can’t take the view that we all have equal rights if we then discriminate,” he said. “How this is done has to be a matter of immense sensitivity. I hope that if it is done, that whole interfaith concept is brought into this.”

On Sept. 11, Blair said, one of the values attacked “is that we are equal before the law, no matter what religious faith we have. You’ve got to keep that principle.”

He refused to answer which American president he’s worked with—Clinton, Bush, or Obama—is the smartest.

But he went on to say that Clinton is “genuinely, of all the political leaders I’ve met, in terms of sheer quick-fire smartness, the smartest I’ve met.”

So that answers that question.

Blair was at his most confident when explaining how the West needs to confront what he called the “perversions” of Islam. He called fundamentalism “the question of our time.”

“It’s not just your methods of terrorism that is wrong,” Blair said of his message to extremists. “Your narrative is wrong. Your tales of oppression by us are wrong.”

Of Iran, Blair said, “I don’t think you can take any option off the table, including the military option.”

As leader of the Quartet’s international Middle East negotiation team, Blair hasn’t stepped too far from the world stage. Two weeks ago, he joined regional leaders at the White House for meetings with President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Blair recounted Obama’s reassuring words to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas: “I’m going to be your partner for peace. I want peace. It is going to be difficult, but I am going to be with you if you want peace,” Obama said, according to Blair.

Abbas’ reply went untold.

Secretary Clinton travels to Israel this week, where talks are supposed to continue but could be cut short by disagreement over a possible settlement freeze.

In a statement that could have served his own rehabilitation efforts, Blair described his hopes for peace in the region: “You never, never give up on it. It doesn’t matter how many challenges, how many difficulties, you keep going.”

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.