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Whitehall and City Hall Meet in High Style

During his brief visit to the Southland, British Prime Minister Tony Blair cracks wise with L.A.'s mayor at a Getty Villa reception.

August 02, 2006|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

British Prime Minister Tony Blair strode across the sun-drenched Conservation Court of the Getty Villa toward Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "I've heard a lot about you," Blair said, smiling, as they shook hands. "All of it good."

So began the tale of the telegenic Tonys, a brief but interesting chapter in Blair's two-day pit stop in the Los Angeles area before Tuesday night's scheduled departure for England.

Lest you think we're being disrespectful, it was Villaraigosa himself who told the Villa crowd that a correspondent for London's Guardian newspaper had written an article in which he said the mayor's first name was Spanish for "Tony" and described him as "the Latino Blair."

"I have never been more flattered in my life," Villaraigosa said to the 100 business, political and cultural leaders at the gathering.

In addition to the mutual flattery, there was serious talk about climate change and less serious talk about the fabled Southern California climate. When Blair walked into the courtyard of the Villa, he glanced skyward, gesturing with upheld arms. "Lovely," he sighed, acting for just a moment like the other 361,000 Britons who visited Los Angeles last year. Britain was the city's largest supplier of overseas visitors in 2005, according to the mayor's office.

Blair, who appeared at ease and engaged, spoke without notes at the reception Monday night at the Villa (which is technically in Pacific Palisades, although the Getty officially lists it in Malibu).

The prime minister did venture into slightly risque territory when he told a story about one of his son's assessment of Los Angeles during a visit last year: "He said there were many great things here. One of them I probably shouldn't get into," Blair said, adding: "He kept saying, 'But, Dad, you should see them!' "

The audience laughed.

"He meant the waves in the Pacific Ocean," Villaraigosa piped up.

As well-traveled as the 53-year-old prime minister is, his staff couldn't recall him visiting Los Angeles before Monday. (He did go to San Francisco 20 years ago.) He is definitely the first serving British prime minister to be welcomed by a Los Angeles mayor.

So Blair packed in as much L.A.-style head-of-state touring as he possibly could -- including a meeting with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Port of Long Beach on Monday afternoon, and then a 25-minute private chat with Villaraigosa at the Getty Villa before the reception.

And what high-level tour of Los Angeles would be complete without rubbing shoulders with philanthropist Eli Broad and a bevy of other business people during a luncheon at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel sponsored by the Los Angeles World Affairs Council?

At Tuesday's luncheon, while answering questions from the audience, Blair confessed that meeting Schwarzenegger gave him pangs of "acute body envy." The audience laughed and applauded understandingly.

He finished up his day with a stop at UCLA to meet with Villaraigosa and Bill Clinton for the launch of the Clinton Foundation's Climate Change Initiative.

It was all part of Blair's plan to go beyond the Beltway on this trip to the U.S.

"Just as Britain is a lot more than London, so America is a lot more than Washington, D.C.," Blair said at the Getty reception.

Guests assembled under the elegant atrium's coffered ceilings dotted with gold roundels. It was a dark suit and heels crowd: members of the Los Angeles City Council and county Board of Supervisors; Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and First American Methodist Episcopal Pastor John Hunter; AEG Chief Executive Tim Leiweke; and Michael Milken, the junk-bond titan turned philanthropist.

They milled around, chatting loudly, watching the entry way expectantly for the prime minister and the mayor. City Councilman Tom LaBonge positioned his digital camera to snap a picture -- "for my archives" he said.

The mayor and the prime minister walked in smiling, the mayor's wife and children close behind. The local Tony spoke first, heralding Blair's participation in "an historic new agreement to reducing our contribution to global warming."

Of Blair's leadership, Villaraigosa said, "He knows that real leadership is about challenging your friends and allies. And from my distant perspective in sunny L.A., that's always been the genius of Tony Blair's record of public service."

But Blair ruefully reminded Villaraigosa that he doesn't always get the red-carpet treatment in London. "You can never be sure in the British press when they said that you were the Latino Blair, whether that was a compliment or not. Actually I think in your case it was," Blair said as the audience roared.

Blair said he specifically "wanted to be out in a different part of America," and he waxed poetically about the soul of a city and commended the mayor for tackling the issues that confront modern cities. "One of the reasons I wanted to come here specifically was to have that dialogue with you," Blair said.

There wasn't too much time for more dialogue, though -- unless the two of them got together later and didn't tell us. There were hands to be shaken and then farewells to be made and a motorcade waiting to zoom the tourist off into the L.A. night.

*

Times staff writer Rebecca Trounson contributed to this report.

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