The damage was done when politicians started believing the cases they had made.
Recent elections and referenda are raising questions about public attitudes to those who aspire to lead them.
Kim Beazley, father of the present leader of the Australian Opposition, was himself a former cabinet minister and one of the most respected political figures of his generation in Australia. He once told me that politicians were indeed liars not because they told lies but because they built up cases, suppressing anything detrimental and playing up everything favourable. The damage was done, he said, when politicians started believing the cases they had made.
Do we aim to make our leaders more effective or to tear them down? Do we assess them on the basis of pub gossip and the lens of the newspaper we read?
I mentioned the subject of this column to a friend who said that when he was younger he had met a prime minister who was being slated in the media. He discovered the man was quite different from the shorthand with which he was often described and decided then that he would never judge a public figure from the way he or she was portrayed in the media.
We often seem happy when our favourite targets for criticism live up to our expectations. We draw a sense of superiority from their gaffes. I was grateful when former US President Bill Clinton said after the recent US election campaign, ‘Am I the only person in America who likes both Bush and Kerry?’
Beazley’s philosophy in opposition was to challenge and heighten government policy not just to oppose it. Is that what we’d like to do? Do we want to get across new ideas or confirm our leaders, particularly if they are from the other party, in the prejudices we think they already embody?
Mahatma Gandhi once said that politics was similar to a game of chess where we knew the moves each person would make. But that when a person’s motives were changed the board was upset and a new start could be made. Do we live, speak, and write in a way that might help produce a change of motives even in those we most dislike?
When Bobby Kennedy became US Attorney General, he was regarded by many who knew him as racist and not interested in civil rights. Martin Luther King Jr met with his followers, Harry Belafonte among them, who were bemoaning the appointment. King slammed his hand down on the table and said, ‘Enough of this. Is there nobody who’s got something good to say about Bobby Kennedy?’
‘There’s nothing good to say about him,’ came the reply. ‘The guy’s an Irish Catholic conservative badass, he’s bad news.’ King then called the meeting to a close, remembers Belafonte. They would meet again, King told them, when somebody had found one thing redeeming to say about Bobby Kennedy, ‘because that, my friends, is the door through which this movement will pass’.
They then befriended the one man who could get through to Bobby’s soul, his bishop, and turned him into their Trojan horse. ‘When Bobby Kennedy lay dead on a Los Angeles pavement,’ said Belafonte, ‘there was no greater friend to the civil rights movement. There was no one we owed more of our progress [to] than that man.’
Recounting this exchange in The Sunday Times, Bono, the rock star who has been enlisting world leaders in the fight to tackle global poverty, says that this story changed his life and pointed him in the direction he is now going. ‘That was a great lesson for me, because what Dr King was saying was: don’t respond to caricature—the left, the right, the progressives, the reactionary. Don’t take people on rumour. Find the light in them, because that will further your cause.’
Michael Henderson is the author of ‘Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate’, Grosvenor Books, 2002, ISBN 1-85239-031-X. Visit his website at www.michaelhenderson.org.uk