Saturday, January 3, 2009

The story of the crystal apple -- and other Boris-isms

"London stands at a crossroads. Can this new Conservative mayor help the world's leading financial center weather the economic downturn, or will he be caught out? Can he persuade North Americans to come to this great city and spend their dollars? Can he deliver air-conditioning on the underground system for the first time in 150 years? Can he reduce bus crime, make transport safer, and simultaneously jump-start the frozen housing market? Yes, he can, my friends!"

"That's your blistering introductory paragraph, to get your piece off to a really flying start," says Boris Johnson. Behind schedule, just arrived at City Hall on his bike, London's mayor proposes to spare us the hassle of an interview and simply dictate this article for me. I've heard worse offers.

Until his surprise win last May, Mr. Johnson was one of Britain's best-known journalists. This half-parody of his former craft and new life in big-league politics manages to capture some of his challenges and give a taste of an inimitable style toned down, but hardly dulled, by the recent metamorphosis.

"I have to do things my way, otherwise I'd kind of explode," he says. "But . . . I'm afraid there are just times" -- here comes one of numerous playful jabs at the gray Scot at 10 Downing Street -- "when you have to be Gordon Brownian. You just got to, got to, got to."

Previously (in)famous because of a propensity for petty scandals and lively logorrhea, Mr. Johnson convinced enough voters he was serious to unseat London's cockney king, "Red Ken" Livingstone, the two-term incumbent and favorite -- "Mayor Leavingsoon," in Mr. Johnson's campaign shorthand.

Seven months in, here's the bigger surprise: Even detractors say Mr. Johnson is doing a good job. He's the most popular figure among Tory faithful (though not the party leadership) and by some accounts in the country as a whole. All of Britain knows him as Boris; close family use Al, from Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. If David Cameron stumbles in his bid to force Labour from power at the next election, Mr. Johnson -- the only Tory politician to win an executive post since 1992 -- would be the favorite to take over Margaret Thatcher's old party.

Days after his election, this all seemed highly improbable. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg stopped by, and there was a little mix-up over the customary gifts. Mr. Bloomberg gave the new London mayor a Tiffany & Company signature box with a crystal apple symbolizing New York City. In return he got a button-down dress shirt covered with a map of London's subway system from Mr. Johnson, who confessed it was an impromptu choice.

The mayors of the world's two financial capitals now claim to have a special relationship -- "very friendly relations," in Mr. Johnson's words. Is the gift episode forgotten, I wonder?

"I am a very proud user of his crystal apple. Where is his crystal apple?" Mr. Johnson looks around and comes up empty-handed. "Someone shot-putted it into the Thames. I don't know what happened to it. Very, very, very, very beautiful object. I'm very grateful to New York and its citizens for my crystal apple. And I'm a proud citizen of New York, a point I would not hesitate to remind you of." Mr. Johnson, mischievous smile and all, was born in Manhattan.

Back to serious matters. This autumn, when the financial system nearly collapsed, Mr. Johnson stood up to defend bankers. His was a rare voice. "Someone had to," he says. Financial services account for nearly a tenth of Britain's economy, far larger in London. Mr. Johnson says he approached Mayor Bloomberg with an idea: "Why don't we form an alliance against ill-thought regulation now, or mistakes we could make now that impede the financial sector, the Anglo-Saxon model, from developing in the future, and let's see if we could find some things in common."

The response? "I have to say I got a bum's rush there. His view was actually, for one reason or another, he didn't see much scope for cooperation. And the reality is that these two great metropolises. . . metropolaise. . ." -- the Oxford classics graduate, author of a survey of the Roman Empire, suddenly wants to stick the ending. "Metropoli?" chimes in his aide. "If it was Greek, it would be poleis," he says, ending the digression. The cities, in any case, "are in competition."

Created in 2000, the London mayor's job lacks the New York post's powers, which could hinder Mr. Johnson's ability to implement his campaign promises to cut into rising crime and ease transport headaches. So far, Mr. Johnson has managed the high expectations well.

In one of his first acts, he banned alcohol on public transport -- a Bloomberg-like act, I point out. "I'm by nature a libertarian," Mr. Johnson shoots back, "but I thought there was a general freedom that people ought to have to be able to sit on the Tube late at night without having some guy with a six pack of beer leering at them in a threatening way."

On the night before the ban went into effect, Londoners rung out the old tradition of boozing in transit with parties/protests on subway trains and buses. "Thousands of young people were hurling execration at my name," says the mayor. "I thought: This is fantastic. It took Margaret Thatcher 10 years before she had mobs of urban youth denouncing her."

In another headline-grabber, this past fall Mr. Johnson pressured out the Metropolitan Police chief, Sir Ian Blair. A favorite of Labour, Sir Ian was criticized by the right for turning a blind eye to Islamic hate preachers in London. Mr. Johnson took the politically risky move, but cited other reasons, and ducks questions about the terrorist threat in his town. "The best and most effective way of defusing the extremists is to engage and support the moderates," he offers -- a line that his journalist self might have dismissed with a neat word like bilge or pablum.

Municipal government would seem ill-suited to a man noted for a quick wit and a short attention span. But he acts the part, his own way. Mr. Johnson describes in some detail a tunnel planned under the Thames, which, he says, "is going to have a quite colossal bore" -- clearly the opening's too tempting not to take -- "a bore even more colossal than Gordon Brown himself."

Talking up the need for bigger apartments at the introduction of his new housing strategy, he says Londoners have grown too fat to live like Hobbits. He indulges his passion for cycling by seeking to make London friendlier to bikes -- for aesthetic green reasons, he says, to get people out of cars and fat burned off their bodies. Recently, he infuriated earnest greens by describing climate change as "a religion" in his weekly column. "Not all religions are bad!" he says. "Climate change might be the faith that supervenes and brings the human race together. Fear of the Sun God. . ." he adds, before trailing off in a chuckle.

Mr. Johnson won a safe Tory seat in Parliament in 2001 while keeping a foot in journalism. He looked finished in politics on numerous occasions. He is a walking Bartlett's of political incorrectness. A Boris campaign pitch: "Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3." On Portsmouth: "[A city of] drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labour MPs." On Liverpool, after a Liverpudlian was beheaded in Iraq: "Wallow[ing in] victim status . . . and their sense of shared tribal grievance about the rest of society."

On London hosting the 2012 Olympics, spoken while in Beijing this summer: "I say to the world: Ping Pong is coming home!" On his talent for gaffes (see entries above): "My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters." On himself: "Beneath the carefully constructed veneer of a blithering buffoon, there lurks a blithering buffoon."

The image of an upper-class Clown Prince from the fields of Eton made Mr. Johnson easy to like and to dismiss. But he is no shallow English toff. He excelled at school. Nor is his background as posh as his accent might suggest. On his parental side, Mr. Johnson is a second-generation immigrant; his great-grandfather was interior minister in the last Ottoman government. Throw in some Jewish ancestors and a direct lineage to King George II, and the image takes on new dimensions.

So, I ask him, are the gaffes now history? Mr. Johnson says flatly, "No," then extrapolates, "What is a gaffe? A gaffe is in the eye of the beholder." I offer Michael Kinsley's definition -- when a politician tells the truth -- and Mr. Johnson says, "Yeah, I would have thought one of the reasons I get elected is because people think I might accidentally blurt the thing they're thinking."

What's the biggest misconception about you? He turns to false flattery: "It's a brilliant question, it's a brilliantly devised, an elaborately constructed trap. I can see the stakes winking at me at the bottom of this leaf covered pit. . . . There are obviously plenty of criticisms that people make of me that I could individually try to demolish, but life's too short."

The Tories are no longer Mrs. Thatcher's party. After three consecutive drubbings in national elections, Mr. Cameron, a former ad man, has revived the party's fortunes, freshening up its image without resolving what these new Tories truly stand for. The party, says Mr. Johnson, is a "much broader, more generous operation," but some Thatcher bedrock principles remain. Such as, he says, standing by "people who are getting hit by high taxes, insecurity on the streets, crime that could be dispelled with a little bit of common sense."

I keep asking repeatedly -- as others do -- what else? Mr. Johnson never looks irritated, though he probably should be. At last, "Oh boy, you know what conservatism is. Do I have to describe it? A belief in the old ways of doing things and all that sort of jazz."

The next elections are due in 2010, perhaps sooner. In the fall of 2007, Prime Minister Brown raised expectations and then got cold feet on calling early elections. His popularity plummeted. Now he's back up in polls and so is speculation. On Mr. Johnson's desk sits a tabloid cover mooting a possible June 4 poll. I point to it.

"Bring it on!" says Mr. Johnson, lighting up. "My message to Gordon Brown through the Wall Street Journal is: You great big quivering gelatinous invertebrate jelly of indecision, you marched your troops up to the top of the hill in October of [2007]. Show us that you've got enough guts to have an election June 4. Gordon: Man or Mouse?!"

His press aide shakes her head, puts it in her hands and laughs. Boris Johnson is enjoying himself.

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