U.K.'s Cherie Blair Shares Words Of Advice

The wife of former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair is helping African first ladies and their staff become stronger advocates for change. She speaks with Michel Martin about this work, the challenges and relationships she's had with the media, and what it takes to be an effective first lady.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Now, we'd like to continue our conversation about the African First Ladies Initiative with Mrs. Cherie Blair, wife of former United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair. Since she left 10 Downing Street, Mrs. Blair has been working to support and empower women around the world through the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. This is her latest project, and she joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program. And can I just start by saying happy birthday.

CHERIE BLAIR: Oh, that's very kind of you. One of the problems of being a former first lady is that you have to be honest about your age. So, yes, it is my birthday today.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, consider the alternative.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's what we say after a certain point, right?

BLAIR: Absolutely, still alive and kicking I think is the...

MARTIN: Exactly, exactly. And I just wanted to ask, of all the projects I would imagine as the, first of all, as a distinguished public servant in your own right and as the wife of a former prime minister, you have a lot of choices and a lot of invitations about things to get involved with. And I wanted to ask, why did you want to get involved in the African First Ladies Initiative?

BLAIR: Well, firstly, because during my time at Number 10, I met a number of the first ladies. I always found them an incredibly interesting, energetic and engaged group, who actually have a very clear vision about what they want to do with the job. But when I became the wife of the prime minister in my country, I found that it wasn't a role that was very well defined. And I really appreciated having some advice from Hillary Clinton, who acted as a mentor to me to help me decide how best to use what is a platform even though you don't have any political power.

MARTIN: What did you find the most challenging part for you?

BLAIR: I think the most challenging part was really coping with the press. So, my first advice to any of the first ladies is don't do what I did on the day after the election, which was open the door in my nightie with my hair not fully groomed. That was a big mistake, because the picture went around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, to get the newspaper?

BLAIR: It was quite an interesting situation because they were delivering flowers. And I asked whether they'd leave them at the front door, and they said: No, you've got to come down. And I later discovered that's because the press was urging them on. And so, I did come down without thinking. And, of course, as soon as I opened the door, all these cameras with flashes and my thought was: Oh, my God, Tony will kill me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, you know, it is true that you had very vicious press culture to deal with. I don't think there's any dispute about that, which continues to this day. But many of the African first ladies are in a very different press environment, where the media - well, let's just be honest about it - is very restrictive. And how would you advise them to keep their finger on the pulse of what is on the minds of the public so that they can advise their husbands?

BLAIR: Well, the first ladies in Africa that I've met who, I think, do the best are the ones that actually do go out and engage with the public. Of course, we all have to understand that we also need the press to get the messages over. So, I think, the first thing a first lady has to decide to do is - well, what is my passion?

And this is what Hillary Clinton advised me. What would I like to do with this platform? And then she finds herself in the fortunate position that actually people will want to help her in that and people will want to know what she's doing. And the press, of course, is an important conduit for that.

MARTIN: What kind of advice is most helpful to a first lady? It's such a unique job. One of the reasons I ask is that there are some who wonder about this particular program. I mean, some people say, well, this is kind of hopelessly post-colonial. You know, many of these first ladies have, you know, careers just like you did and, you know, are very well educated. And so, you know, what's that all about? So, I'm wondering what kind of advice is particularly helpful. Is it someone who's been in the job before? What does help you?

BLAIR: Well, I must say that I've been very used to being in a group of first ladies who come from across the world and who certainly treat each other as equals. And the interesting thing about it is that we all learn from each other. I can remember learning a huge amount, for example, from Mrs. Mbeki in South Africa and talking to her about the work that she was doing about domestic violence and women's issues in South Africa.

And you're absolutely right. The first ladies, as a whole, tend to be well-educated, well-informed. I mean, they have to be to accompany their husbands on that journey to political power.

I know that I'm going to meet with Mrs. Kikwete from Tanzania and I can remember very well her taking me on my visit to Tanzania around the maternity wards to see the HIV/AIDS project that she was supporting. And it was perfectly clear to me that she was terrifically well informed, not just about the human issues involved in giving birth, particularly if you have HIV/AIDS, but also about the scientific solutions.

MARTIN: You know, I have to ask if you have any thoughts about following Hillary Clinton's lead and running for office yourself.

BLAIR: Well, I think that there's a different system in my country. And what I'm enjoying very much now is the ability to concentrate on an issue I feel passionately about, which is the economic empowerment of women. And that freedom is something that I relish.

MARTIN: In other words, heck, no. No, no, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Cherie Blair is the wife of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. She will be one of the keynote participants in the Annual African First Ladies' Fellowship Program that is organized by the non-governmental RAND Corporation that aims to introduce African first ladies and their staffs to various strategies for managing an effective first lady's office.

And Mrs. Blair was kind enough to join us from New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BLAIR: Thank you.

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