The politician’s hagio-biography
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