February 2017


The character business

By Mark McKenna
Image of Julie Bishop

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop reading an extract from The Latham Diaries. © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

What does the deluge of political biography and memoir say about politicians and readers?

In October 1964, Richard Crossman, a senior minister in Harold Wilson’s newly elected Labour government, was struggling to adjust to his life in Whitehall: “My Minister’s room is like a padded cell, and in certain ways I am like a person who is suddenly certified a lunatic and put safely into this great, vast room, cut off from real life and surrounded by [the civil service].” Crossman’s The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister exposed “the secret operations of government, which are concealed by the thick masses of foliage” otherwise known as democracy. It was an acerbic, penetrating and frank account. An alarmed UK Labour Party tried to stop publication of the diaries when they appeared posthumously in three volumes more than a decade later. Given Crossman’s devastatingly comic depiction of the civil service, it’s little surprise that his diaries inspired the 1980s television sitcom Yes Minister. As Clive James saw when he reviewed the diaries in the New York Review of Books in 1977, “They purport to be about men governing institutions, but they are just as much about institutions governing men.”

Nothing quite like Crossman’s diaries had appeared in print before. His eye for the everyday and his intuitive grasp of human relationships – of Wilson and his wife he writes, “I am sure they are deeply together but they are now pretty separate in their togetherness”; he also describes Wilson “lying in bed eating kippers, with one kipper thrown on the carpet for his Siamese cat to finish” – stripped away the façade of respectability that had for so long veiled the workings of Britain’s political institutions. Such an unvarnished account, Crossman believed, could only be written “by someone who knew party politics from inside”. As both an “observer” and a “doer”, a political scientist and a “journalist MP”, he was ideally suited to the task.

Crossman knew himself as well as he knew others. Determined not to hide his “own worst failings” and remarks that made him “look silly in print”, he saw his diary as an attempt to both “avoid self-deception” and provide “a continuous record” of his “whole ministerial life”. Dictating religiously every weekend while his memory was “still hot”, Crossman was well aware that his observations would one day be of “quite special historical value”. He would not be disappointed. By the standards of today’s unshockable media culture, Crossman’s revelations might appear tame, but his ambition to reveal the hitherto unseen practice of day-to-day government caught the imagination of a generation of politicians throughout the English-speaking world.

In 1999, when former federal Labor minister Neal Blewett published A Cabinet Diary: A Personal Record of the First Keating Government, he acknowledged Crossman’s impact. “This is the first time a cabinet diary of this nature has been published in Australia,” he wrote, “although Richard Crossman in The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister began the practice in the United Kingdom a quarter of a century ago.” As it turned out, Crossman’s diaries were in the back of more than one Labor cabinet minister’s mind. In 1985, when Gareth Evans visited England as Bob Hawke’s minister for resources and energy, he paid homage at Crossman’s family farm in Oxfordshire. Already emulating his literary role model by keeping a diary, Evans was determined to do for Australian politics what Crossman had done for Britain’s. Almost three decades later, when he finally published Inside the Hawke–Keating Government: A Cabinet Diary, Evans explained how he had been inspired by Crossman’s attempt to show how “government actually works in practice” and to paint “a complete, rather than selective, picture of the events … which filled [his] ministerial days”. Shortly after its publication, Laura Tingle noted that all the “young things” in caucus were “hoovering up” Evans’ Cabinet Diary to gain an understanding of how the government worked.

Like Crossman, Evans and Blewett came from academic backgrounds and were conscious of the historical precedents and limitations of the genre. They also displayed far more patience than the surfeit of today’s political diarists and memoirists. Years of cooling off before publication is now the exception rather than the rule. Contracts are signed when politicians are still in parliament; in some cases, politicians are diary-wired before they’ve even taken their seat. In 2013, the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir closed his first press conference as a senator by quipping that he had to race back to his office to write up his diary. Perhaps Muir was spruiking. If so, he failed to secure a publishing contract, and yet his remark caught the zeitgeist flawlessly. What began half a century ago as the finely honed participant’s view of politics has since become a tidal rush of everything from crude apologia, thinly veiled political intervention, prurient gossip and narcissistic self-promotion to a handful of genuinely revelatory accounts of executive government in which Crossman’s ghost still hovers.

Since the publication of The Latham Diaries in 2005 and the period of leadership instability that soon ensued, the sharp increase in the number of political books – biography, diary, memoir and autobiography – has been much remarked on. Sales have been healthy. John Howard’s Lazarus Rising has shifted well over 100,000 copies, Julia Gillard’s My Story more than 70,000 and Mark Latham’s Diaries in excess of 60,000. In a country where book sales of more than 4000 units are considered successful, many political books have easily sold more than 5000 copies and some have exceeded sales of 20,000 (The Costello Memoirs, Kerry O’Brien’s Keating, Niki Savva’s The Road to Ruin and Peter Garrett’s Big Blue Sky). Recording the recent trending of political books is one thing, but understanding the phenomenon is quite another.

In an ever expanding market, the crucial determinants of popularity have remained largely constant: the status of the author and subject (descending from prime ministers and Opposition leaders to cabinet ministers and other insiders); voice (first-person accounts appeal more than political analysis); immediacy (wait more than 18 months in a 24/7 media culture and the subject risks being forgotten); and, finally, the level of intimate or scandalous detail that is revealed (all of which becomes more potent as it touches on the office of prime minister). The vast array of such books defies tidy categorisation, just as publishers, booksellers and critics hold widely differing views regarding their cultural significance.

Nearly all of these titles fall under the rubric of life writing. The politician tells his or her “own story” (often with assistance) or someone tells it for them (with or without their co-operation). Within these two broad categories there is myriad variety: scholarly political biography (its preference for distance and broader, long-term understandings of political culture increasingly marginalised as a genre); popular political biography (usually written by journalists and published when the subject is within the leadership circle); political memoir, diary and autobiography; the “personalised policy essay” (as described by Blewett); “sharp little biographies of political players” (as described by their most effective exponent, David Marr); and analyses of leadership crises with a strong biographical element. Some of the latter fly unapologetically under titles borrowed from TV crime drama (The Killing Season, The Stalking of Julia Gillard) and luridly epitomise Alan Clark’s dictum: “There are no true friends in politics. We are all sharks circling, and waiting, for traces of blood to appear in the water.”

Amid this cacophony, little is stable, least of all the author. As Louise Adler, CEO of Melbourne University Publishing and the person who has led the publication of political diaries and memoirs in Australia, recently pointed out:

Contemporary political memoirs are rarely produced without editorial support – the unacknowledged ghostwriter, the credited co-author, advisers, researchers, fact checkers and a legion of loyal staff. The “author” is what semioticians might call an “unstable” category, an unusually capacious term that permits a looser definition than other genres.

If “looser definition” is one hallmark of the recent wave of biographical political writers, “loose reliability” is its natural bedfellow. The methods employed by authors and their collaborators to arrive at a “truthful account” are as varied as recollections of meetings in Canberra. There are no agreed rules, only those imposed by the author. Like Howard and Hawke, most make no attempt to reflect on their own methodology. Instead, they simply ask the reader to believe that they will “deal objectively” with the material and “tell it as it was”. Very few write their memoir or autobiography with the same aim as former Labor minister Barry Jones – “to explain my life to myself” – while the handful of authors who do contemplate their means of arriving at the truth do little more than reveal the spectacularly improvised nature of the genre.

Collaborating with Malcolm Fraser to produce his Political Memoirs, Margaret Simons described her role as the “curator” of Fraser’s life story, imagining wishfully that she could “disappear behind the material”. In compiling Keating, Kerry O’Brien claimed that he was “neither Paul Keating’s biographer nor his ghostwriter”. Rather, O’Brien, who relied partly on conversations “paraphrased from memory”, saw the book as an “amalgam” of Keating’s “authentic voice” and his own “robust challenges to [Keating’s] account of the political history he lived through and his part in it”. As co-author of The Costello Memoirs, Peter Coleman “discussed, edited and improved on each draft” with Peter Costello, yet insisted nonetheless, “These are his memoirs, not mine.” Composing The Reith Papers, Peter Reith relied on an unusual hybrid of diary and memoir, selectively quoting diary entries as catalysts for personal recollection. The Latham Diaries were initially written up from notes by Mark Latham a week or so after the event, then later transcribed digitally, preserving the original entries. For the reader to trust any of these idiosyncratic means of truth-telling requires an act of faith. “Trust me,” the author purrs. “I will tell you what actually happened.”

Leaving aside the more obvious potential for after-the-event embellishment, softening of initial judgements, omission of essential data, and editorial pruning and clarification for the purposes of readability, the vast gap between what actually happened (which ideally requires more than one perspective) and the book that finally emerges is undeniable. Yet perhaps this is a given. As Doris Lessing remarked, “we make up our pasts”. All forms of biographical writing are notoriously unreliable: the biographer struggles to capture the lives of others, forever chasing the phantom of the life “as lived”; the autobiographer is inevitably Janus-faced, because the self of the narrative is a “stranger to the self who writes”; the memoirist relies on the most unreliable instrument of all. The much more vexing question is what the surge in biographical political writing reveals about the lives of the governing class, and the state of Australia’s political culture.

In 2007, when political scientist James Walter lamented the “sheer prevalence of mediocre ‘campaign’-style biographies of virtually every party luminary … too numerous (and mostly too lacking in usable insight) to cite”, he asked imploringly, “But why are they deemed necessary?” Even those who have lived inside the Canberra bubble, such as former Labor minister Lindsay Tanner, decry the current obsession with “personal dramas” rather than policy and “ideas”. As Tanner writes in the introduction to his Politics with Purpose:

Since I left federal parliament in 2010, I have been asked many times when I am going to write my memoirs. My answer is always ‘Never’. With Australian political debate drowning in vacuous narcissism, I have no wish to impose my inevitably self-serving recollection of mostly forgettable events on the reading public.

Tanner’s palpable cynicism points to one of the glaring paradoxes of recent political memoirs and biographies. At a time when electorates in liberal democracies are frequently diagnosed as “alienated” or “disengaged”, and “mistrust” of the political class is endemic, our culture is saturated with political talk, and political books are widely read, and not only by the cognoscenti. Rather than “distorting” the political process, the inundation of political books acts as a mirror. On the one hand so many of these accounts are instantly redundant, while on the other, cumulatively, they provide a telling portrait of contemporary politics.

Politicians have long sought to shape the historical record. Self-consciousness comes with the territory. Dilettante or old hand, every MP chisels their place in history, hoping that even if no one appears to be listening now, someone may in the future. Yet there’s much faux humility from our political masters. Positioning political memoir as an act of community service, the politician pleads that they are motivated by little more than a desire to provide the “raw material” for the annals. Robert Menzies, for example, claimed that he had written his memoirs “for the assistance of tomorrow’s historians”. Whether future historians will play the dutiful scribes they are so often imagined to be is doubtful. Many current political books claim to provide the reader with a “ringside seat when history is being made” (Bruce Hawker in The Rudd Rebellion). Equally prevalent is naked indulgence in legacy building: “Aside from not being prepared to let ideologues rewrite history, as a patriot I can’t resist the urge to tell a proud story of Australia …” (Wayne Swan introducing his memoir of his time as federal treasurer). Only a minority of politicians aspire to perform the highwire act of being both observer and participant.

Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister begins with an account of attending David Hare’s 1993 play The Absence of War, which is based on British Labour politician Neil Kinnock’s time as Opposition leader. “I found myself asking a question which will always haunt us and to which no easy answer appears,” Hare’s lead character muses after his election loss. “Is this history? Is everything history? Could we have done more? Was it possible? And how shall we know?” Like Hare’s character, Carr is haunted by the question of whether his 18-month stint as foreign minister will matter: “Had this been history? … was it all history?” In Russia, his tenure as foreign minister all but over, Carr gazes out of a train window on his way from St Petersburg to Moscow, to “more clusters of derelict dachas, clumps of pine and birch and marshes”, and finally reassures himself: “Yes, it was history … But speeding fast, and already fading like an illusion.” The history to which Carr appeals has vanished before it arrives. In today’s media environment – best described by the Guardian’s Katharine Murphy as “a cycle of constant cross-current, contention and disruption” – history is now. The din of ceaseless news obliterates the past. The only memory is of constant change. This mania for immediacy, which Gareth Evans has sardonically compared to “Dante’s ninth circle of hell”, sacrifices reflection for the “authentic” eyewitness account. A participant’s political history is valued far more than after-the-event analysis. Nowhere are these trends more obvious than in The Latham Diaries, in which Latham, bizarrely, seemed determined to gazump journalists:

In understanding political events, the Australian public depends heavily on journalists, people who can never go behind the scenes and provide a first-hand account of the political process. By its nature, their work is derivative, relying on … second- and third-hand interpretations. This has weakened the reliability of the public record. The electorate has had little exposure to the other side of public life, to what happens behind the newspaper headlines, behind the political spin and manipulation of the news cycle.

This book aims to overcome that deficiency … A diary can go places that the media or historians can never see, and it does so with a striking immediacy, free from revisionism and party political censorship.

Latham’s contempt for journalists (whom he later describes as “animals”) blinds him to the fact that he uncritically accepts the rationale of the very media he derides: elevating the fly-on-the-wall account above considered reflection. It fails to occur to Latham that many of the historians and journalists he elbows aside in his eagerness to narrate “politics in the raw” actually have the capacity to provide a far less “jaundiced account” of his time as Labor leader than the one he provides in his diaries, which are blatantly self-serving and constantly undermined by bitterness: “My commitment to the cause was destroyed by the bastardry of others.” Taunting journalists – they “only ever see a small fraction of what happens in politics” – Latham unwittingly pointed to one of the forces that would drive the publication of so many political books: the ever-intensifying struggle between politicians and journalists to claim primary authorship of political history.

In Canberra, everyone is an insider. Cheek by jowl in the same ruthlessly competitive environment, and surrounded by so much media noise, both politicians and journalists are desperate to puncture the clamour with a line that their audience will buy and follow – a narrative that might last more than a nanosecond and on which the pack will feed. Each side needs the other. Neither side trusts the other. Like Latham, many of today’s political authors claim to be both participants and analysts, insisting that the only legitimate and authentic interpreter of politics is the person who was “there” – the (allegedly) unfiltered and untainted voice of the eyewitness.

This struggle for political authority, credibility, trust and, ultimately, power is partly a by-product of the merging of what were once two separate worlds: the journalist and the politician. No longer content with their traditional roles, journalists seek to become players: shock jocks become senators or share equal billing on the ABC’s Q&A stage with cabinet ministers, reporters who once interviewed prime ministers stand against them in their own seat, and retiring newspaper editors write memoirs that divulge their private conversations with the rich and powerful. At the same time, politicians and their staff regularly cross over to the other side: one-time prime-ministerial advisers become hired snipers on Sky News (Peta Credlin), old Labor powerbrokers return as TV hosts (“Richo”), former Opposition leaders star in their own radio programs (Lathamland) and, like old dogs retiring from the sporting arena to the commentator’s box, former MPs regularly take up the op-ed pen, dispensing gratuitous political advice to their previous teammates. The representation of parliamentary democracy is now akin to the stock exchange floor: a crowd of undifferentiated brokers trading in ideas, opinion, policy bubbles, misinformation and shady promises. Trapped in the Canberra bearpit, their hands raised high, each shrill voice shouts down the other. For those entrusted with framing, advancing and legislating policy, the task of rising above the fray and governing the country becomes daily harder.

While reviewing Chris Mitchell’s recently published memoir, Making Headlines, the Australian’s Nicolas Rothwell offered one of the more cogent diagnoses of this malaise:

The key message of Mitchell’s memoir is how strong the campaign to manage and marginalise the media has become. Politicians build their own narratives and promote them. The media knows this and fights back. A kind of shadow arms race has developed as a result: a contest with threats, blandishments, feints and confidences as its stock in trade.

Biographical political books are unquestionably one of the major sources of political narrative to which Rothwell alludes, many of them standing as little more than an extension of the politician’s media arsenal. Their publication – so often extracted and immediately condensed into bite-size morsels such as the ubiquitous bio-feature published in weekend magazines – is much more than news.

In an era when trust in politicians has evaporated, the only way to make a political leader credible is through the selective exhibition of their private world. Political philosophy and policy reform are not sold intellectually; rather, they are embroidered in carefully scripted narratives that ground politics in the leader’s personal life story. Nor is the leader’s political conviction found in cabinet meetings or party machinations. Instead, the principles that will guide the nation’s future apparently lie in the dimly lit hallways of the leader’s childhood memories. In 2010, barely three weeks after she had taken the leadership from Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard asked “for the Australian people’s trust to move Australia forward”. She revealed herself as a “shy child” transformed through the sacrifices of her Welsh immigrant parents. Gillard recalled her mother “cooking and scrubbing pots in a Salvation Army aged care home”, and her father’s shiftwork as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital. These stories of hardship not only stood as a metaphor for the success of Australia’s postwar immigration program but also, as she explained, shaped her political “values”. The man Gillard deposed had spoken of his childhood too: growing up on a dairy farm in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, left fatherless at 11 after a fatal car accident, his mother and family evicted and forced to sleep in their car before they found temporary accommodation. Kevin Rudd’s journey from Struggletown to the Lodge was an all too familiar refrain.

In the lead-up to last year’s federal election, Malcolm Turnbull posted a campaign advertisement on his Facebook page. Alongside childhood photos, Turnbull told the story of his single-parent father’s unconditional love (“I was the main object of everything he wanted to achieve”) and his family’s adversity (“we didn’t have much money, he was a hotel broker and for most of that time he was battling like a lot of people are, a lot of single parents are”). In order to vote for our political leaders, it seems that we have to see our own life experience mirrored in theirs. They have to become “family”, which is probably one reason why our relationship with them is so fraught. Political autobiographies and memoirs are natural extensions of the same phenomenon. Publishers crave intimate detail from their political authors, while politicians strategically deploy their life stories as allegories of national experience. In a culture in which the electorate has become increasingly sceptical of all kinds of political communication – press releases, doorstop grabs, tweet-bombs, Facebook pages that are little more than thinly veiled propaganda, set-piece parliamentary performances designed for television news – “character” and personal biographies have become the last islands of “genuine” information, their origins forged in a pre-political time and their telling responsible for establishing trust and credibility. And not only in Australia. Before polling day, the 2016 US presidential election campaign was mistakenly understood by political commentators as a battle of “character” between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Character came to the fore most dramatically in Australian politics in the winter of 2010. David Marr’s Quarterly Essay ‘Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd’ was widely credited with “undermining” Kevin Rudd before he was deposed in June that year. At the very end of the essay, Marr described his dinner with Rudd at a waterfront pub in Mackay. When Rudd asked what line he’d take in the essay, Marr answered him bluntly: Rudd was an “orator of skill” who could also be “a bore”. He was also a prime minister “unloved by his own caucus” whose government might well fall. Unsurprisingly, Rudd was furious. Marr vividly described the “dressing down” that followed:

I have hurt him and he is angry … He doesn’t scream and bang the table as he does behind closed doors. We’re in the open. The voice is low. He is perfectly composed … In his anger Rudd becomes astonishingly eloquent. This is the most vivid version of himself I’ve encountered. At last he is speaking from the heart, an angry heart.

Face to face, it’s so clear. Rudd is driven by anger. It’s the juice in the machine … Who is the real Kevin Rudd? He is the man you see when the anger vents. He’s a politician with rage at his core, impatient rage.

Shortly after the publication of his Quarterly Essay, Marr was confronted on Q&A by Jayashri Kulkarni, a professor of psychiatry, who argued vehemently that Marr wasn’t qualified to make such a diagnosis, least of all in regard to someone in public life such as Rudd. Stunned, Marr tried to hold his ground, defending his right to interpret Rudd’s character. “You do medical treatment,” he replied, “I’m a biographer, a reporter. I [ask]: What’s that person like and how does he operate? And you cannot bar people from doing that.” Other commentators such as Crikey’s Mark Bahnisch chimed in, accusing Marr of “amateur psychology” and arguing that he had reduced Rudd’s complex personality to one primal emotion, “putatively the result of childhood trauma”. Bahnisch insisted that Rudd “should be judged on the public benefits of his actions, not on a whole bunch of inferences from his biography”. Reflecting on the encounter five years later, Marr refused to back down. “What … I should have said to the angry professor was this: ‘Biographers are in the character business too.’”

Marr has naturally denied that his Quarterly Essay had anything to do with Rudd’s downfall. And his defence that biographers have long sought to understand what motivates their subjects has many eminent supporters. As Judith Brett explains, the first question she seeks to answer as a political biographer is “what is the deep source of political energy for that person. What drives the subject … ?” More significant than the biographer’s qualifications in psychology or the largely unanswerable question of the political impact of Marr’s Quarterly Essay is the fact that, more than any other recent example of political biography, Marr’s essay dramatically signalled the rise of “character” in contemporary politics, or, as he put it, our growing willingness “to make sense of the country through biography”. Marr is one of the few serious writers on “character”, and his work stands apart from the bulk of biographical political writing that brazenly seeks to use character for political advantage. As he has explained, Marr draws his inspiration from an earlier generation of journalists – Mungo MacCallum, Alan Ramsey, Craig McGregor and Bob Ellis – who “never lost sight of the role of character in public life”. Yet whether political biography, “if it’s out in time”, can actually help us “decide the fate of the country”, as Marr has claimed, is less certain.

The flood of biographical political writing published in the past decade is symptomatic of the fact that we are increasingly being asked to judge the actions and policies of our political leaders on the basis of their character alone. The deliberate attempts by politicians to massage their biographies only make them fair game for journalists, and their potential fall from grace ever greater. Again and again, personality prevails over policy; intimacy and immediacy over analysis. The political class draws ever inwards, daily losing its capacity to stand outside itself because so many of its roles have become interchangeable, a situation that only makes it easier for populists to cast its members indiscriminately as “elites”. At the same time, we are asking more of our political leaders and giving them less time to deliver. We want to know them intimately, not only as politicians but also as “one of us”. And we are as quick to worship them as we are to revile them. Nostalgic for a time when prime ministers were bold enough to advance a program for national renewal, we scan the horizon for a leader who will take the opportunity to use power creatively.

The success of political biography and the continuing interest of publishers and readers alike – 2017 will see memoirs from former Greens leader Christine Milne, independent senator Jacqui Lambie, Labor’s Sam Dastyari and the crown prince of conservative gadflies, Tony Abbott – also points to more profound changes in how Australia is governed. For a country that has never sought to define its identity through its political institutions, politics today occupies an increasingly central position. Despite regional and state divergence, the political conversation emanating daily from Canberra holds the nation together more than we might be willing to acknowledge. As the overwhelming public response to the death of former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam on 21 October 2014 demonstrated – surely a watershed in the history of public commemoration in this country – Australians now possess a greater readiness to remember figures of intellectual, political and creative vision. The mirror that we hold up to ourselves is becoming larger, and the patterns of our self-understanding and remembrance are becoming more diverse and less tangible.

This essay will appear in A Historian for All Seasons: Essays for Geoffrey Bolton (eds Stuart Macintyre, Jenny Gregory and Lenore Layman), to be published in June 2017.

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is a professor of history at the University of Sydney. His books include An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark.

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