(Not?) fading, Colin James

David Lange,
Jonathan Hudson and Associates, no price given

Ex-Prime Ministers can be a nuisance. Edward Heath pricked at Margaret Thatcher who demeaned John Major. Sir Keith Holyoake connived at the supplanting of his successor by Sir Robert Muldoon who in turn nobbled his successor as National Party leader and excoriated the one after that. David Lange ran down Mike Moore and last year made things difficult for Helen Clark with relentless demands for looser fiscal and monetary policy. The Labour Party hierarchy greeted his retirement announcement in February with less than desperate grief.

The problem is that ex-Prime Ministers cannot easily be given fitting work and often don’t find it for themselves. Moore drifts. Sir Sidney Holland cut a pathetic figure. For a transition to usefulness as a private citizen a certain humility is required: Sir John Marshall helped out at Victoria University, Sir Wallace Rowling has been a timber industry advocate and chairs the Museum of New Zealand project and Sir Geoffrey Palmer is having the time of his life as a “public lawyer”.

David Lange is not over-endowed with humility – unless shyness and nervous self-mocking qualify. His after-life in the private-citizens sector has been characterised by newspaper columns, a collection of which makes up Cuttings, and speeches.

He is very good at both. Very good, that is, if entertainment is the criterion. He is the funniest person in print after Raybon Kan. “Two Mikes don’t make a sound system,” he said of the improbable flirtation last year between Michaels Moore and Laws; impotent National backbenchers fussing over Ruth Richardson’s scary first Budget were “flies in a bottle”. Journalist David Barber published a compendium of his one-liners in 1987 in Gliding on the Lino (Benton Ross). Cuttings has them in lush abundance.

Lange makes fun, too. One might mistakenly think the publisher (address-less in the imprint) has slipped inside the covers, where a fictitious “Sir Jonathan Hudson, Leader for Life, Association of Consultants and Tax Avoiders” turns up at least twice – or is it the imaginary knight who has got loose?

But is wit enough? No, by Lange’s own criterion: “Good journalism makes astute assessments of events,” he said in the Sunday Star Times on July 17, 1994. If the journalist is a former Prime Minister, one might add: “and offers unique and enriching insights”. Does Lange?

Sometimes. His understanding of Winston Peters’ style and (lack of) substance, as reflected in these columns (notably Craccum, July 12, 1993), is acute. Journalists condemned to circular frustration at Peters’ Pied Piper teasing might have benefited from a chat. Lange had the parliamentary cohabitant’s instinctive understanding of the frailties, strengths, power and. emptiness of Sir Robert Muldoon.

And in the last Cutting (Dominion, October 24, 1994) he lays out something approaching a credo, or sua culpa: a guide to where Labour went wrong and what Labour, reborn (his word from another column), should abjure and endorse. Many on the Labour left would applaud, even while trudging into lobbies for a contrary official policy.

In the hands of a genuine wit, and Lange is that, experience and insight can be powerful informers and challengers. Lange admires the work of Americans Hunter S Thompson and P J O’Rourke, who at their best inform and challenge.

But Lange is not the guide to politics someone of his intellect and express-train intelligence could be. He is more at home in polemic, against “these cancers”, the Reserve Bank Act, the Fiscal Responsibility Act and the Employment Contracts Act (Dominion, September 26, 1994) than in considered commentary. He is anecdotalist and raconteur, seldom analyst – and the risk is that polemic and anecdotes, especially when polished by wit, can slide into fiction.


Colin James edits New Zealand Books and is a political columnist.


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Posted in Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
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