When a former head of government visits Yale, Yale is guaranteed to pull out all the stops. And when Yale pulls out all the stops, it’s guaranteed to be quite a spectacle.
Thousands of students, faculty members and New Haven residents, including Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, filed into Woolsey Hall to the sound of Yale’s alma mater on Woolsey’s majestic organ. By the time the doors opened, some had been patiently waiting in line for at least two hours.
The full day of fanfare surrounding former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s professorial debut began early on the morning-talk-show circuit, continued with his first class and peaked in his Woolsey conversation with University President Richard Levin, history professor Paul Kennedy and student representative Lita Tandon ’10. It wrapped up with a swank soiree at the President’s House, in the company of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his wife Wendi Murdoch SOM ’97, with musical guests Mixed Company of Yale.
Blair’s presence electrified campus in a way not witnessed since California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke last spring. But the hullabaloo surrounding the ex-premier’s debut as a professor actually began almost two weeks ago, when a limited supply of free tickets was distributed for Friday’s public conversation.
As the 2,000 spectators took their seats Friday afternoon, four official Yale Windsor chairs stood at attention before a blue backdrop spangled with the word Yale 56 times.
University Secretary Linda Koch Lorimer greeted the audience, cautioning them to remain seated so the guards wouldn’t “mistake a good audience member for a bad guy.”
Blair, who in his Friday-afternoon seminar had just outlined his theory of faith as a source for good, began the talk by assessing his new pupils.
“They were a little smart,” he quipped.
Blair said he himself was an “undistinguished” student, telling a story of his time at Oxford when a stranger introduced himself to Blair halfway through the semester as his professor.
“Not a single person believes you were a lousy student,” Levin said, after hearing Blair’s thoughts.
Kennedy said it is common for British politicians to downplay their intellect.
“He’s sharp as a pin,” Kennedy said.
Blair faced some tough questions, but not a particularly tough crowd. He repeatedly elicited laughter and applause, even while defending his controversial alliance with President George W. Bush ’68 and his support for the war in Iraq.
Daniel Goldman SOM ’09, who said he found the whole speech inspirational, praised what he saw as the sincerity of this response.
“He acknowledged the frailty and fallibility of politicians and leaders; not every leader will do that,” Goldman said. “Other politicians have felt the need to justify their actions.”
Geoffrey Liu ’11 said he thought the relaxed atmosphere was the most noteworthy aspect of the event.
“The most striking part about the talk was how he acted, like a normal guy,” Liu said.
But Liu also expressed disappointment at the lack of specifics in Blair’s words. Big questions and big answers lead to vague responses, he explained.
For example, when Levin asked Blair to offer words of wisdom to the next American president — whether a Democrat or Republican — he answered broadly: listen.
“Power will be shared,” he said. “Balance the leading with the listening.”
Certain audience members criticized these sometimes-lofty statements.
Leo Khayet SOM ‘10 said he was not impressed by Blair. The former prime minister seemed like a politician who couldn’t match intellectual heavyweights like Levin and Kennedy, he said.
“The ideas he talked about — I get the sense that he hadn’t really thought about it that much,” Khayet said.
But in an interview with the News, Kennedy said the conversational structure of the event was meant to combine theory and practice.
Lydia Martin ‘12 said there was a natural variety to the questions — some political, others philosophical or personal.
“It did sort of seem like an actual conversation,” she said.
And at the end of the speech, even Lorimer’s warning couldn’t keep audience members in their seats. Blair exited to a standing ovation.