The perils of proximity, Michael Laws

Helen: Portrait of a Prime Minister
Brian Edwards
Exisle Publishing, $44.95,
ISBN 0908988206

Biography is a fraught art. If the subject is dead, then the Author is reliant upon a myriad of sources, often contradictory, to capture the essence of their quarry. If the subject is alive and, worse, co-operative then the end result can be even more misleading. A strong personality can ensnare and turn a biographer. There are those churlish enough to claim that Michael King’s Wrestling with the Angel is just such an example.

There’s an irony to that observation. Having just completed a biography of former All Black Norm Hewitt, I am well aware of the perils of proximity. Objectivity is strained through the filter of friendship, judgement blurred because you’re just too close.

However, it’s the frisson of such an enterprise that provides the compensation. The opportunity to look at the world through another’s eyes, and to project that vision, is the rarest of privileges.

Invariably, mistakes will be made. The subject may misremember or wilfully misreport incidents or events; sometimes the biographer will misinterpret. Such is the price for taking readers inside another’s consciousness. And, given the human tendency towards irrationality, then it is possible that writers lend a purpose and a strategy to events that were beyond the insight of the subject at the time.

No matter. Readers (if not critics) will forgive the odd stutter so long as their innate voyeurism is sated. And so long as enough of the truth escapes the prejudices of both subject and writer to allow the reader to discern the essence of the character under review. To get a better understanding of both the personality and their actions.


This then is the proper test for Helen: Portrait of a Prime Minister. Does Brian Edwards take us close enough? Are we better informed – more cognisant of Helen Clark’s personality, motivation and/or philosophies as a consequence of reading this book? In short, are we enlightened?

In a word: No.

But then how could we be? At the outset, Edwards dismisses any hint of objectivity. “I am neither historian, nor political scientist, nor biographer,” he states. “And anyway, this is not a biography. It is … a portrait, an attempt to convey a true likeness.” 

Leaving aside the assertion that a biography can’t be a true likeness, Edwards’ difficulty is that he admits to being in his subject’s thrall. Not only has he been a friend and political guide to the Prime Minister over recent years but he “genuinely admires” her: “I think she’s an exceptional person and … she may come to be regarded as one of New Zealand’s great Prime Ministers, perhaps the greatest.”

Ah, so this is not a biography or a portrait then. Helen has a more honest purpose. It is an exercise in propaganda. At which point one can forget having “a true likeness” revealed.

Edwards admits as much in his foreword. For years, Clark was portrayed as “a cold, hard, unattractive woman” and he’s out to redress the balance. He wants the reader to see “Helen’s good side – attractive, generous, warm, caring, funny …” Again, this is neither biography nor portrait.

I could forgive Edwards this hagiography if we could but glimpse his subject’s soul. Have a better understanding of her true character. But even that chance is scuppered and this time by Clark herself. Apparently it was a condition of the Prime Minister’s involvement that the book “not deal with matters of personal morality”.

Yet I find it impossible to condemn this book. It is an interesting narrative, well researched and crafted. Indeed, it rather proves my theory that everybody’s life is interesting simply because it is not the reader’s. It is human to be fascinated by the nuance and detail of other lives. Television understands that; hence the recent plethora of reality TV shows.

Certainly, Helen does allow us to gain new perceptions of Clark even if it is through the filter of interviews with Judith Tizard, David Lange and Barry Gustafson.

One thing becomes clear. Clark is not a woman given to passion. She is shrewd, ambitious and calculating. She wanted to be a professional politician from a young age and worked steadily towards that goal. She networked remorselessly. She burned no bridges. And despite being out of favour in the gung-ho days of the Lange/Douglas ministry, she assiduously progressed her way into the centre. For a good part of those years, she was sustained by the Labour Party “sisterhood” and her friendships with Margaret Wilson, Cath and Judith Tizard, and Jim Anderton’s former wife Joan.

Interestingly, Edwards skips over the botch-up Clark made of the Health portfolio, when she finally did make Cabinet. At the time, she was a fairly fragile individual and National properly targeted her as a minister who could be rattled. Again, Edwards omits these details. The Clark who would become Geoffrey Palmer’s and then Mike Moore’s deputy in the lead-up to the 1990 election massacre was a very different beast from the serene leader of nine years later. The reasons for this inner transformation, as opposed to external image-shaping, are only scantily discussed.

Indeed, the real issue is why Clark has made such a formidable Prime Minister after being such an ineffective Leader of the Opposition. After defeating the mercurial Mike Moore for the Labour Party leadership, she led Labour to its worst ever polling result in the 1996 General Election. By all political logic, she should not have survived the next Caucus meeting, let alone led Labour to victory three years later.

Of course, the proverbial drover’s dog could have won in 1999. After nine years of National, and the bizarre sideshow that was the Bolger/Peters coupling, it would have taken colossal ineptitude not to defeat the caretaker Shipley. The truer test for Clark will be to win in her own right. And win again. Whether she becomes one of the great prime ministers, as Edwards predicts, is still five years and a vision away.

And therein lies the greatest weakness of Helen. 352 pages later and I’m still perplexed as to what Clark stands for, what her vision is for New Zealand or the means by which she might hope to achieve it. Although, as a general rule, you can’t have both vision and stability. In any such contest, Clark will clearly err on the side of the latter, as the temporary sackings of Dover Samuels, Ruth Dyson, and Marian Hobbs illustrate.

And that may be the true genius of Clark. This is an age that demands stability after 20 years of relative volatility. Muldoon, Lange, Douglas, Bolger, Peters, Prebble, Shipley … the past two decades have given us no shortage of political excitement but precious little certainty. Clark is the right leader in the right place at the right time. A woman with sufficient pragmatism and skill not to scare the horses. Although luck appears not be a part of the Edwards’ equation for the Prime Minister’s current ascendancy. 


The other issue relating to the book is nothing to do with its content but its price. At $44.95 for this glossy hardcover, Helen will have struck considerable consumer resistance in the book market. Sure enough, this biography made its debut at no.5 on the bestseller lists then slipped to no.9 and was gone. The whole point about propaganda, surely, is that it be accessible.

Certainly, the Labour Party faithful snapped up the book – Maori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia claimed the chief toady prize by conspicuously purchasing five copies on the night of the launch. But beyond that faithful retinue, it is difficult to see a commercial market for Helen.

Which is a shame, because there have been any number of political bestsellers over the years, starting with Muldoon’s Rise and Fall of a Young Turk and even including the memoirs of irrelevant and irreverent backbenchers like Pam Corkery and myself. But then those books were written in the first person and so revealed the inner character, even if only subconsciously. Conversely, those penned by third parties – Paul Goldsmith on John Banks, Michael Wall on Jim Bolger – lack punch or immediacy. Sadly, we must add Helen to the latter list.


Michael Laws is a Wellington writer, publisher and political commentator.


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