Magazine article The Spectator

Personal Rapport

Magazine article The Spectator

Personal Rapport

Article excerpt

What really goes on between world leaders at summits? Sir Christopher Meyer, former press secretary to John Major and later ambassador to Washington, told us in How to Succeed at Summits (Sundays, repeated Wednesdays), an entertaining two-part series on Radio Four. Meyer told us that, for example, when President Bush made a jokey reference to Tony Blair using Colgate toothpaste at Camp David, assembled journalists wondered how on earth he knew: did they share a bathroom? In fact, Meyer knew that all the bathrooms there were supplied with this particular brand because he was part of the entourage. Summits remain a secret world because quite often two world leaders will meet in private without their officials present, and only an interpreter, if one is needed, will witness it.

Meyer has amused us before. Last year he published his very readable and wellwritten memoirs of his period in Washington, and the political class hypocritically attacked him for being indiscreet. In reality he just revealed some of their flaws, and although we knew before that John Prescott was an imbecile it was great fun to see the evidence. As it happens, I first met Meyer some years ago when he was head of the news department at the Foreign Office and I was on the diplomatic beat. Unlike some other incumbents of that post, he had a quick, waspish sense of humour and sometimes gave me the impression, perhaps falsely, that he would rather be somewhere else. Unlike some, he appeared to like journalists, though once in a private briefing he solemnly assured me, keeping a straight face, that the Foreign Office wasn't antiIsrael when I knew it was. On the whole he was an attractive figure.

In this series he talked to other officials about the face-to-face meetings with leaders. Brent Scowcroft, a former adviser to several American presidents, revealed that the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kept a toy cannon on his table with caps and he periodically fired it. At other meetings he had a cigarette case with a timer on it which would open every 30 minutes so that he could smoke. He was trying to limit his smoking but every so often, unable to wait any longer, he would attempt to break the lock. Meyer remembered that box from a 1975 Harold Wilson summit.

As Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton's secretary of state, explained, the bureaucracy gives the politician a list of topics and then sits in to take notes. Meyer observed that some leaders can't do without cue cards. Ronald Reagan used his like a film script. …

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