The politician’s hagio-biography

October 8, 2012

Last week, Ed Miliband, who wants to be Britain’s prime minister, had the kind of public event that changed people’s, or at least the media’s, perception of him: He was punchy, sharp, raspingly dismissive of the government’s strategy. The Labour Party leader, in his speech to the party’s annual conference, spoke for over an hour without notes, moved about the stage with apparent ease, and seemed in a fine, combative humor. He got good press, which he generally hasn’t for the first year of his leadership. It didn’t have quite the earth-moving quality of Mitt Romney’s steamrollering of President Obama a day later – another, and much greater, turnaround event for the man who wants the somewhat larger job of U.S. president. But Miliband did good.

Unfortunately, he also spoke about himself.

This was unfortunate, because what he told his audience – the nation, rather than just the Labour Party conference – was the now-standard democratic politician’s confected biography. He had a loving family, and he was just like most people – in his case, because he went to state schools. Trust me, says this biography: I am psychologically secure, and I know ordinary life. As he said in his speech: “that’s who I am”.

But who is this “I”, really? The “I” who went on to Oxford University and to the London School of Economics (elite)? Then to Harvard (elite and American)? Then almost immediately to a career in politics, as a senior politician’s aide (far from ordinary life)? The “I” who had a father, Ralph, who was the UK’s most prominent Marxist sociologist? This “I” has apparently been banished from Miliband’s story – he is just the “I” that he thinks his electorate wants him to be.

How much more, or less, important is it that Ed Miliband was brought up by Marxists than that Mitt Romney was brought up by Mormons? One man’s father believed in the ultimate victory of the working class over capitalism, the other’s religion believes that the Book of Mormon was discovered by the early 19th century divine Joseph Smith on a series of gold plates and later taken back by the angel who had given them to him (before they could be fact-checked). Miliband’s past is less important, one would guess, since he is not a Marxist, while Romney remains a Mormon. Yet what does even that tell us about the Romney “I”? Indeed, which Romney are we talking about – the hard-right, Tea Party-approved Romney of the primaries or the managerial, centrist Romney of the first presidential debate?

Those American politicians who could, without too much mendacity, point to a hardscrabble youth and who used it in presenting themselves to the electorate have increasingly set the pace in the democratic world. The creation of a narrative of ordinariness, even material or psychological hardship, is one of the earliest tasks of a leader’s spin doctors. British politicians, closest to the U.S. political culture, have in recent decades constructed, where they had the material for it, their own versions of such a story. Margaret Thatcher had some success using the story of her father, the shopkeeper, and the humble flat above the hard-worked shop; Gordon Brown rather less, with his father the Presbyterian minister.

Nicolas Sarkozy had a wealthy father – but the latter left the family, and the future French president did his best with this character-building desertion, and the fact that he was shorter than and not as rich as schoolmates from even wealthier families. Silvio Berlusconi spent many millions introducing himself to his future electorate as a man from a simple Italian family – pious, industrious and modest. That went well for him, for nearly two decades.

These essays in hagio-biography are unfortunate because they chafe so much against what’s obvious to all who see these politicians: that the most important thing about them is their driving ambition, their preternatural energy, their relentless will, their rapid intelligence – their startling un-ordinariness. It is of course interesting that Thatcher, who seemed so posh, had a father who was a shopkeeper and that Sarkozy’s father, who owned an advertising agency, left his family. We all like gossip. But it tells you nothing about the fitness of either for the job they strove so hard, and successfully, to gain.

Our demand – or our acquiescence in the media’s demand – for “authenticity” is the root cause of this deeply inauthentic trend in politics and political PR. It is inauthentic – the opposite of what it claims to be – because we are, none of us, the simple projection of our younger selves and experiences, much less a carefully edited version of these. The effect of both nature and nurture upon us combine in infinitely complex ways and interact with our conscious efforts to remake ourselves as public men and women. In his book Agile Gene, the British zoologist and journalist Matt Ridley illuminates the endless to-ing and fro-ing between the natural and the nurtured in our makeup – a complexity of interaction that means it is wholly impossible to be dogmatic about character from a few indications plucked from one’s upbringing.

We demand the wrong thing of our politicians. We demand an obeisance to ordinariness when we are electing men and women to do tasks that are all but superhuman. Seeing President Obama fumble in his debate last week with Republican candidate Romney was to feel close to pity (the last thing a presidential candidate wants to hear, to be sure) for one who has had four years of nightmarishly negative politics and is now confronted with his challenger’s set of simplified (and apparently newly coined) nostrums. Yet Obama himself, as a candidate in 2008, leaned heavily on a message of simple will (“Yes we can!”) and a biography of upward mobility from humble, even difficult, origins, skillfully conflating the taking of the historic step of electing the first black president with the implication that his own first presidency would be necessarily historic.

The right thing to know, as responsible voters, is the set of tasks any president or prime minister will inherit – a simplified version of the thick briefings that will lie on their first day’s desk. The right thing to ask for, when politicians make their pitch, is not the loving nature of their parenting but their unsentimental grasp on the most salient of the issues that confront their country. For a British would-be leader, these are in the first instance how debt is to be reduced and how growth is to be restored – and beyond that, a wilderness of crises, setbacks and treacheries that await any political leader. For an American president, the tasks he will take on are at once national and global in scope, vast, complex and often intractable. They range from a steadily growing debt to the nuclearization of Iran to the neglected but increasingly looming threat of global warming.

To test would-be, or sitting, leaders on their professed responses would tell us far from everything. Many of the answers would be necessarily speculative. The issues change, sometimes by the day; a candidate answering questions on a podium is not a leader surrounded by advisers and intelligence reports. But it is something closer to the reality with which we ask our leaders to deal. It is, in every way, more authentic. And through the answers, and the intellectual and psychological preparation they have (or have not) made for the often crushing burdens of power, we can make at least a provisional judgment on that part of their character that matters to us: their will and ability to lead. Whether their father liked their politics or not can wait for real biographies.

PHOTO: Ed Miliband, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, waves to delegates as he arrives for a question-and-answer session at the party’s annual conference, in Manchester, northern England, October 3, 2012.  REUTERS/Andrew Winning

One comment

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I respectfully disagree; and yet, at the same time, suggest that neither of us is “wrong”.

We each see and experience life through the “prism” of our personal life experience and inseparable values and expectations. What each of us “see” is ALWAYS different than someone else. A good example would be the jury that decided the O. J. Simpson case.

Our perception is often unpredictable because of some mental “wild cards”. The challenge of dealing with “life” through a fog of ever-changing quantities of various hormones make adolescents, women of child-bearing age and, in particular, pregnant women illogically emotional. What you see is what you get, for this moment in time. Tomorrow may be different. Or not.

Parents who demonstrate faith and piety by example hope their children will follow in their footsteps. But some children don’t like going to Sunday School and/or church, and resolve they will NOT do these things when they can make their own decisions. Others reach perhaps a premature conclusion that religion makes no rational sense simply because all young people have a fundamental sense of being immortal.

As maturity and an increasingly logical thought process molds an individual’s character and values the certainty of youth evolves from black and white absolutes to the rich “color of life with indescribable nuance. In the process, some return to religion out of fear of “things unknown and unknowable”. Others rediscover true and lasting religious feelings and renew their affiliation with organized religion. But even among the latter, some deliberately choose a church of different dogma than that in which they were raised. The individual “prism” through which life is perceived we share with no one else. It is absolutely unique.

And so, in above context I would suggest that mature voters do NOT demand very much at all. They want to believe that the person who gets their vote is a reasonably intelligent person who has something in common with them. If he’s rich, we may want to see humility and generosity as appropriate to circumstance. If he’s brilliant and dazzling in public, we may want to see that he cares and can work with those who are not.

We want him or her to be “up to” that which we are not. They are to be our chosen “champion”, to do what we hope we would do “for us”. We want to see priorities, wisdom and effectiveness together with a willingness to compromise on those issues that do not fundamentally threaten America’s long term viability.

Has America ever produced such people? Well, George Washington was offered the title of “King” and turned it down at a time few others would have simply because he believed that was the “right” thing to do for his country. I would not call such a man “ordinary”.

I look at Ronald Reagan as that extreme rarity who, whether you agreed with him or not, generally left negotiations with the honest respect of his adversaries. He was that rare person who did not see a “win-win” outcome as a kind of defeat. I would not call such a man “ordinary”. As was often said of Jimmy Stewart…”people just seem to like him”.

People like these are rare, like diamonds. We don’t see their like often. But hope springs eternal; and so we look for them every day. I see no difference whatsoever between what Britain or America need in their next leader. Expenditures must be brought within such revenue as tax incentives and disincentives extract from the current economy.

Do these things right and the inevitable result will be gradual reduction in government debt. Only on such a path will rising economic confidence bring about such “growth” as is possible. The new “normal” is that it takes fewer and fewer people to do what MUST be done even as populations groow and “productive employment” is ever more elusive and sought ever more desperately.

Today Washington is like “memory foam” without the memory. It shifts it’s shape constantly to pressure applied here and there, but the size, mass and trajectory towards fiscal chaos never changes regardless of the “party in power”. To “do these things right” requires a leader able to convince citizens that his/her “plan”, whatever it is, is in the best interests of a majority. They must create the consensus by which they will act

“We, the people” have been ignored for far too long by our political elite. Like FDR and his “fireside chats”, take us into confidence. Explain where we are, where you would take us, and make us believe it’s where we must go even if we don’t want to. When “we, the people” are treated with such respect, we sometimes do the unthinkable…and become willing to work together for the common good!

But all this is for a future election. The dominant parties today in the United States have provided voters only a choice between bad and worse.

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