Political Animals: Confessions of a Parliamentary Zoologist
Two Titans: Muldoon, Lange and Leadership
Dunmore Press, $34.95,
I have always loved Jane Clifton. I mean her well-informed, insightful and quirky newspaper and New Zealand Listener articles. Years ago, I sought her out at a conference to tell her so. Never having met her, I asked someone who she was. He directed me to an attractive, longhaired young woman in the Press Room. I sailed up, introduced myself, told her how much I enjoyed her articles and, sensing that I was bemusing and embarrassing her, took my leave. Clifton still doesn’t know I am an admirer because some time afterwards I discovered I had accosted another journalist.
I also know Jon Johansson. I was an external examiner for his doctoral dissertation, on which Two Titans is based, and, as he acknowledges, his analysis of Rob Muldoon draws heavily on my biography His Way.
Both books are of similar length and are paperback, but there the similarity ends. Two Titans, published by Dunmore, is printed with clear type on quality paper and its arresting cover has evocative photos of the two leaders in their prime. Political Animals, published by Penguin, has a sickening green cover, festooned with small, barely recognisable caricatures. Inside the covers, cheap newspaper is matched with a smudgy print that, especially in some of the chapter headings, reminds me of the carbon copies I once made on my old typewriter.
Most of Clifton’s 44 chapters are only five or six pages long and most of the Members of Parliament she has observed over the past 25 years are summed up in a couple of sentences, or, in the case of major figures, a couple of pages. This makes reading very easy and allows the book to be picked up and enjoyed when one has a few minutes to spare.
Not all the essays are concerned with politicians. Clifton also makes numerous short, trenchant observations about the political environment and process, and changes over time. She includes a swipe at political correctness and an insight into the culture of the Press Gallery. There are several non-political personal diversions, such as her reminiscences about changing women’s fashion, the advent of cappuccinos and earrings in the 1980s, and an account of how she got her driver’s licence and why she loathes 4WDs and their owners. Indeed, the book ends, somewhat surprisingly, with an “Epilogue”, by far the longest essay in the volume, which has nothing to do with MPs but recounts Clifton’s frustrating fight with the Wellington City Council over the conservation of the Wellington Town Belt.
As a self-proclaimed “parliamentary zoologist”, prone, as she admits, to “crude psychology”, Clifton observes the political animals in their natural habitat: the House, their electorates, during election campaigns, and at play. As she admits in her introduction, there is no attempt to dissect or to develop a detailed or balanced analysis of any of them. She comments on their appearance, their speech and their personality. Her intention is “to convey the colour, the barminess and, sometimes, the underlying well-meaningness of political animals”. She also ponders why, during her time as a journalist, “our most popular prime ministers have been an unpleasant-looking and domineering chartered accountant who made us frightened, a wise-cracking 20-stone lawyer who made us laugh, and a blue-stocking career politician who sits up in bed nights listening to opera on headphones.”
Most of her subjects are dealt with gently, as pets not wild animals. She argues that “most MPs are sincere, hardworking and well-motivated” and “our Parliament is not corrupt, it isn’t dumb, and it certainly isn’t lazy”. She is not concerned with discussing policy or with scandalous gossip about the sexual exploits or drinking habits of individual MPs, journalists and civil servants who inhabit the once smoke-filled backrooms and probably still incestuous corridors of Parliament. Instead she sketches the essence and the strengths and weaknesses of both prominent MPs and a larger number of minor figures, who rate little more than a footnote, if that, in New Zealand’s political history. There are a few whom she appears to have neither particularly liked nor admired: Jim Bolger, Bill Birch, Ruth Richardson, Michael Laws.
Clifton clearly does like nonconformist politicians and those with a sense of humour, such as Winston Peters, whom she also somewhat surprisingly identifies as a much harder worker than many of his colleagues; David Lange, whose personality and spirit “were so much bigger than his body”; and Sue Bradford, “that rare creature: the ego-free politician … in it for the cause”. She also “got to like Mike [Moore] enormously”, partly because he had “one especially great gift, almost a genius: for friendship”. Her chapter on Moore includes excellent examples of how well she describes people’s characteristics: “Ideas were always jostling in his brain for space in his mouth, and as they came rushing out, they pushed one another askew, so no one idea ever emerged intact.”
Clifton could have told us much more than she does. The chapter on Richardson, for example, devotes as much attention to her cosmetic makeover as to her radical policies and their outcome, while that on Clifton’s partner, Murray McCully, is very cleverly written but totally lacking in anything specific about him.
Johansson, by comparison, is a very serious political psychologist and his detailed analysis requires more discipline and time to read. It concentrates on arguably the two most interesting and intelligent Prime Ministers of the last quarter of the 20th century: Muldoon and Lange. This book, unlike Clifton’s, is comprehensively footnoted, evidence of both the research Johansson has done and his scrupulous acknowledgement of the work of others that he draws on.
After Sir Robert Jones’s interesting foreword, the first 40 pages of Johansson’s book may deter some readers. There are thousands of books and articles on leadership theory and Johansson refers to many of them. He adapts and uses particularly the work of Erwin Hargrove (The President as Leader, 1998) and Stanley Renshon (The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates, 1996), both of whom based their leadership models on study of the US presidency. Indeed, Johansson models his application of psychological leadership theory, especially as it relates to culture and character, to Muldoon and Lange in much the way Hargrove did to Johnson and Reagan.
In the second two-thirds of the book, Johannson uses the published research and comments of others on Muldoon and Lange, neither of whom he interviewed. He also admits that, unlike the case with Muldoon, he had no previous major study of Lange to draw on. Empirically there is little new in what he tells us about either man. What is new is his analysis, which goes further than anyone else has in applying the insights of leadership psychology to these two fascinating but flawed New Zealand politicians and in mapping their core ideals and values. After discussing each of the two sequentially, Johannson’s “Conclusion” systematically compares them using 10 of Hargrove’s hypotheses, and finds seven wholly confirmed.
Both men proved in the long run to be “wild cards”, who believed they knew best, who disrupted the political system around them, and who contributed to the collapse of their party under the weight of unfulfilled expectations. Both were eventually swamped by the fatal disjunction between their personal limitations and the turbulent environment, which Muldoon tried but failed to control and from which Lange walked away when the going got tough. Neither was able in the longer term to explain fundamental truths to the electorate or inspire it to purposeful and united action.
There were significant differences between the two leaders. Muldoon relished personal confrontation. Lange largely sought to avoid it. Muldoon was a master of detail and a skilled manager but lacked creative insight and strategic vision. Lange, through his superb rhetoric, could evoke nostalgia and inspire idealism but he lacked the political skill and strength of character to achieve his goals.
Most people remember Muldoon’s expressed desire to leave New Zealand no worse than he found it. Few commentators have judged Lange by his 1984 goal to change the country so that it emphasised non-material things over money, refashioned a national identity, fostered cooperation, and brought a bit of joy back into New Zealand. Both men suffered the tragic fate of situational leaders with human frailties as well as strengths, who were eventually unable to cope during a major turning point in history.
Clifton’s and Johansson’s books overlap in that both try to sum up the enigmas of Muldoon’s and Lange’s outward personalities and inward characters. As with Muldoon’s scathing one-liners or Lange’s clever quips, I suspect readers will remember Clifton’s short, evocative observations rather than Johansson’s much more careful and detailed psychoanalysis. Both writers, however, conclude that, in Clifton’s words, Muldoon acted out of “a genuine belief and concern for New Zealanders’ welfare”, counterproductive though his policies may have been in the longer term and inexcusable though his personal terrorism of others was. And Clifton would probably agree with Johannson’s assessment that Lange was “too vibrant, too anti-establishment, and the possessor of too fine a sense of the absurd” to be a successful long-term Prime Minister, stimulating and entertaining as he was for a time in that role.
Barry Gustafson is an Auckland historian who is currently finishing a biography of Keith Holyoake.