Life at No. 10 Downing Street was rough and lonely at times for Cherie Blair, but she says she’d do it all again. She offers tips for America’s first lady-in-waiting.
The job description would never make it into the feminist classifieds. Hours: 24/7. Duties: unspecified but unlimited. Official power: none. Risk of public criticism: excellent. Salary: zero.
You couldn’t blame Michelle Obama if her reaction to life after January 20 were a bewildered “Now what?” She’ll have no shortage of well-intentioned advisers, but she’d be hard pressed to find one more sympathetic than Cherie Blair, the first spouse of a British prime minister to have a career of her own. Like Obama, Blair took on her duties as a mother of young children with a professional life in the law, an equal partner with her husband who suddenly faced a decidedly secondary role. She helped rewrite the rules of modern first ladydom, even though, as she told me when I interviewed her for our “ Memo to Michelle” in the February issue of More Magazine, the term “first lady” isn’t properly used in Britain.
“It’s what Hilary Clinton said to me: Remember there’s going to be some people who don’t like you, not because of anything you do, but just because of what you represent.”
“We don’t have a title as such,” she said. “In fact the first lady of Britain is Prince Philip.” That’s because the prime minister is head of government but not head of state, like our president. But that’s how the world—and Fleet Street—saw Cherie Blair, and it’s how she learned what she calls the most valuable lesson from her on-the-job-training: “A first lady can have influence but she cannot be seen to have power. You know there’s a difference? And influence is okay but power is wrong because power belongs to the person who’s elected.”
Blair offered some more tips to Obama about dealing with that newly unequal relationship, generously extending the very exclusive chain started by the former first lady who became her own role model: Hillary Rodham Clinton. Blair told me Clinton gave her a “master’s class” in the subject. But, she said, Tony Blair’s political opponents worried that Cherie she was just like her American counterpart—someone who was “stepping out of the traditional woman’s role.”
Lynn Sherr: And this was not seen as a good thing for the wife of British leader?
Cherie Blair: No, it was seen as a dangerous thing for him.
LS: Dangerous how?
CB: Because it was challenging the status quo. Because the whole system has sort of been geared around the idea that the husband works and the wife stays at home.
LS: So what does that mean? Does that mean you don’t listen to the criticism; you just do your own thing? Or does it mean you just choose very, very carefully?
CB: You choose very, very carefully. It’s what Hillary Clinton said to me: Remember there’s going to be some people who don’t like you, not because of anything you do, but just because of what you represent. So there will be some people for whom Michelle Obama will never be able to do the right thing because she shouldn’t be there at all because it should be a Republican, you know.
LS: You’ve said you felt that you’re damned if do, you’re damned if you don’t.
CB: Yeah. So you might as well do. [LAUGHS] One of the things that will make it easier for Michelle is actually that Hillary and Laura [Bush] have gone before. Because the role develops all the time and it reflects society. And so the more that we have women educated as men, women engaged in speaking out as much as men, the more the system will adapt to that.
And if you really want to do something about it, the only way you can ever get that equality is to stand for power yourself and then defeat your husband in the next presidential election. [LAUGHTER]
LS: Michelle Obama is facing four years. What do you say to her?
CB: Don’t rush into anything. On the other hand, you want to hit the ground running so you need to have something that’s fairly soft and easy to do so that you can establish an identity without setting yourself in concrete or straitjacketing yourself in such a way that you can’t develop that as you find your feet.
LS: What should she be prepared to give up?
CB: Oh, privacy. [LAUGHS] I mean literally privacy because she won’t be on her own anymore. And yet in some ways she’ll also be lonely. When I interviewed the previous prime ministers’ wives, all of them felt lonely in Number 10 at times. Because they were separated from their friends and they were in a system which was geared around their husband—a system which took their husbands away from them. You know, absorbed a lot of his energies.
LS: How can she keep her own sense of herself in that goldfish bowl?
CB: Well the best thing for me, the salvation for me, actually, was the fact that I had my children with me, too. And being together as a family is the most important thing. Because that not only grounds her but it will ground him, as well.
LS: What about the kids?
CB: She must do everything she can to have as normal a life as possible. Help them understand that their father is an exceptional person, but that their time to be exceptional persons will come in the future and not now.
LS: Do you envy her or feel sorry for her right now?
CB: Neither. I’m sure she’ll do a fantastic job. She’s got the intelligence, she’s got the charm, she’s got all the capacity to make a brilliant first lady. And it is exciting and it’s draining and it’s hard work. But you know, I’d do it all again tomorrow. And I’m sure at the end of her time in the White House she would say the same.
Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. At ABC’s 20/20 news program, Sherr specialized in women's issues and social change, as well as investigative reports. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is just out in paperback.