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Blair accepts 2010 Liberty Medal

Former president Bill Clinton presents the 2010 Liberty Medal to
former British prime minister Tony Blair on Sep. 13, 2010 at the National Constitution Center. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Former president Bill Clinton presents the 2010 Liberty Medal to former British prime minister Tony Blair on Sep. 13, 2010 at the National Constitution Center. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)Read more

Former British prime minister Tony Blair received the 2010 Liberty Medal on Monday at the National Constitution Center, saying he accepted it with a "great sense of hope and optimism for the future."

Blair, who was an architect of peace in Northern Ireland and an ardent supporter of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, received the medal from former President Bill Clinton for his "steadfast commitment to conflict resolution."

As late-summer darkness settled on the front lawn of the Constitution Center, Blair told the hundreds of gathered guests that liberty required effort, tolerance, rules and, especially, optimism.

"Optimism of the human spirit is what drives progress and what drives liberty," Blair said.

Clinton, Gov. Rendell and Mayor Nutter extolled Blair as a peacemaker for his work in Northern Ireland, his current role as a negotiator in the Middle East and his efforts to fight poverty and corruption in Africa.

None mentioned Blair's controversial role in leading his country into war in Iraq and Afghanistan, an effort that eventually cost him his popularity and his position in Britain.

Blair plans to donate the $100,000 in prize money to the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, two of the organizations he has created since leaving office in 2007.

In his remarks after accepting the medal, Blair praised the abiding influence of the U.S. Constitution and said "liberty is not something passive, but something active." He said liberty is "won by endeavor," by "ordinary people doing extraordinary things."

"To be free is to be responsible for the freedom of others," Blair said.

And he sounded a theme of special resonance in the aftermath of 9/11 and the continuing controversy over a Muslim center near the site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers in New York City: tolerance for all religious beliefs.

"Liberty requires that we respect differences," he said. He said his experiences in the Middle East, Northern Ireland and Africa have persuaded him of the importance of people of different faiths living together peacefully.

"Tony Blair believes people of faith can be people of peace," said Clinton, who is chairman of the Constitutional Center. And he said Blair also knew that "not every religious tenet can be turned into a political program."

Referring to his wife, Hillary, Bill Clinton drew laughs when he said he knew Blair was making a difference in the Middle East, "because the U.S. Secretary of State told me so."

The ceremony took place at dusk, with Blair facing the scaffold-encrusted tower of Independence Hall two blocks away, punctuated by the rumble of SEPTA's Route 48 buses rolling west on Arch Street.

The former prime minister, the former president and the other dignitaries were dwarfed by an enormous backdrop of lights, large video screens and projected images of the Constitution.

Hours before the ceremony, Blair and Clinton spent an hour discussing their shared time on the world stage, during a conversation before about 150 invited guests at a Constitution Center theater.

Both men said the rise to power of China, India and other eastern nations will be perhaps the most influential trend in the years to come, with the United States and Great Britain working together as a western counterweight.

Blair was also pitching his new best-selling memoir, A Journey: My Political Life. He described Monday, as he did in the book, the difficulties of leadership and the vulnerability he felt.

"The decisions are tough," he said, as Clinton nodded. "I always thought they rested easier on your shoulders than on mine."

Blair also noted the attention his book has drawn for his admission that he worried about his dependence on alcohol during his time in office, saying he often drank a gin-and-tonic before dinner and several glasses of wine with dinner.

Warning of the hazards of "alcohol and political leaders," Blair said, "when you get to my age, you've got to be careful of that."

But he also noted that one of his colleagues from Scotland had not been impressed by his drinking: "He said, 'In Glasgow, we give more than that to the canary.' "

Blair served as prime minister from 1997 to 2007, the longest term of any Labor Party leader. The boyish-looking prime minister championed a "new Labor" party that was centrist and business-friendly, and he led the party to an unprecedented three consecutive general-election victories.

The Liberty Medal, first awarded in 1989 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, annually honors "men and women of courage and conviction who strive to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe."

The first medal went to Lech Walesa, founder of the Polish Solidarity movement. Other recipients have included South Africa leader Nelson Mandela, former presidents Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter, U2 lead singer Bono, and Supreme Court justices Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O'Connor.

Last year the medal was awarded to filmmaker Steven Spielberg.