There he is on Wednesday morning, Tony Blair, once one of the most powerful leaders in the world, inspecting different rooms at the Eastman Boys & Girls Club at 700 East Del Amo Blvd., nodding his approval at the various offerings from computers to arts and crafts to myriad musical instruments.
“This is just great,” says Great Britain’s Prime Minister between 1997 and 2007 to the person showing him around the premises, a 17-year-old Poly High senior named Asiahn Henry, a Boys & Girls Club member since she was 7. “So many nice things for the kids to do. I once played the guitar in a rock band, but, oh, did I play it badly.”
A few moments later, Blair is in the establishment’s basketball gym, giving a motivational speech to an audience of kids, as well as a few grownups, and then taking questions from some of the wide-eyed youngsters.
He relates how it is a lot better to be grilled in this kind of venue than it was when he was in office and faced a weekly inquisition in the House of Commons, especially during the final years of his incumbency when he endured severe criticism in his country for allying it with the United States in the Iraq War.
“The people now asking the questions are a lot more polite,” he says, amid laughter.
Blair, attired in a blue bespoke Savile Row suit, a maroon-and-purple tie and black shoes, makes quite an impression in his first appearance in Long Beach with his self-deprecatory charm, his polished oratory, and his self-assured yet disarming manner.
At noon, he is in the dining room of the Keesal Young & Logan law offices on the 14th floor of the Union Bank building on Ocean Blvd.
A large group of folk from various fields – politicians, attorneys, city officials, businessmen, accountants, physicians, cops, corporate executives, marketers, publicists, etc. – is present at the annual Long Beach Boys & Girls Club fundraiser orchestrated by Farmers Insurance and Skip Keesal.
And Blair turns out to be a mesmerizing speaker, as he gives insightful views on such divergent subjects as the world economy, governments’ changing roles, global warming, the international terrorist threat and Africa’s need for assistance.
He points out how the Middle East is now going through a dramatic transition, with those on one side, which he feels are in the majority, seeking to live in peace, and others seeking to institute a radical agenda without religious tolerance.
“We must not let those who would bring darkness win out,” he says.
Blair reveals that he never has seen “The Queen,” a fictional account of the events that transpired after the death of Princess Diana and that starred Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth and Michael Sheen as Blair.
“I met with Her Majesty, and she asked me if I had seen it,” he says. “I told her I hadn’t, and she told me she hadn’t, either. And she has no plans to see it. And, of course, neither do I.”
As Blair goes through his monologue with such an articulate ease, it’s easy to understand how he, at a mere 44, became the youngest person to become Great Britain’s PM since 42-year-old Lord Liverpool in 1812.
Although Blair is listed at being a 6-footer, he looks to be taller, perhaps because he has extraordinarily long legs on a slender frame that betrays the fact he works out diligently daily on a treadmill.
“I love athletics,” he says.
But he doesn’t know an awful lot about those in America, at least the one known as the national pastime.
After the executive editor of the Press-Telegram, Rich Archbold, proudly shows Blair his Chicago Cubs’ tie, he asks Blair, “Ever hear of the Cubs?”
Blair shakes his head in bewilderment.
“They’re a baseball team from Chicago,” says Archbold, stunned that such a person of high station has never heard of a team that hasn’t won a World Series since 1908.
Blair reveals that his favorite sporting club is Newcastle United, which will be returning to the Premier League for the 2010-2011 campaign after being relegated to a lower league this season.
After I’m introduced to Blair by the executive director of the Long Beach Boys & Girls Clubs, Don Rodriguez, I ask him if he thinks England’s World Cup Soccer chances have been seriously impaired by the injuries to David Beckham and Michael Owen.
“Not really. … Those guys were pretty old anyway,” he says.
I also congratulate Blair on the decisive role he played in helping London secure the 2012 Olympic Games.
“They wouldn’t have got them without you,” I say, and it’s a known fact that Blair’s behind-the-scenes maneuverings on the eve of the IOC voting turned out to be the difference.
“Thanks,” he replies.
Skip Keesal, the famous attorney, gives Blair a stirring sendoff, saying how gracious and enlightening he’s been and how he certainly left an impact on those in Long Beach on Wednesday fortunate enough to have heard him, which certainly is the case.
By Doug Krikorian of the Long Beach Press Telegram