I am a lover of books. Reading has been one of the great pleasures of my life. In some ways, it has defined my life, and my political identity. It was reading Mill’s On Liberty when I was at school that persuaded me that I was a liberal. Later, at university, I encountered Menzies’ The Forgotten People. Indeed, for me, even my own political scandals have a bookish edge – too many expensively-housed books in my Parliamentary office; being caught reading poetry to help me stay awake late at night during Senate Estimates.
The vocation of politics and the craft of writing share much in common. Practitioners of politics must be artificers of the spoken word. And those whose craft is the spoken word will always owe a deep debt to the written word. Sir Robert Menzies’ daughter Heather Henderson, in her recent memoir, recalled that before he was to deliver a major speech, Sir Robert – who seldom if ever spoke from a scripted text – would read not briefing books, but poetry.
Many great political leaders have also been writers. The young JFK won the Pulitzer Prize for History; Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature. If Barack Obama had never gone on to do anything more with his life, his Dreams from my Father – written before he had established himself as a political figure – would have earned him an honoured and notable place in American literature, as a fine example in the genre of young people struggling with their identity and background. In Britain, although neither of them quite reached the summit of political ambition, both Roy Jenkins and William Hague did reach the summit of biographical achievement, with their richly awarded biographies of others who had won the political prize which eluded them.
Equally, some of the greatest literary figures of the past century have held, or sought, serious political office. Andre Malraux served in de Gaulle’s Cabinet; Czech dramatist Vaclav Havel went on to lead the Velvet Revolution and become the first President of post Cold War Czechoslovakia. Gore Vidal twice ran for Congress, and came very close to becoming a Democrat Senator. Imagine how entertaining that would have been.
Gough Whitlam’s familiarity with classical literature and history was one of his defining, and most attractive, features. When Vidal made Whitlam’s acquaintance, it was love at first sight. Among others, Sir Paul Hasluck was a serious historian; the most significant scholar ever to have served in our Parliament who, earlier in life, was also a not insignificant poet.
More recently, Bob Carr is so well read that he wrote a book about how well read he is. John Howard’s memoir, Lazarus Rising, was the most successful Australian political book ever published, while his last book, The Menzies Era, won the highest praise from no less a figure than Clive James, who wrote:
‘[Howard’s] more devoted enemies greeted the book as the kind of thing you might expect from an unrepentant racist, misogynist, CIA agent and neo-Nazi, but even they had to concede that it was neatly done. … Even those who thought that his lack of effervescence in government was a bourgeois insult to their own exciting personalities would be obliged to admit, if only under torture, that his unspectacular expository prose is a suitable instrument for recounting both the broad sweep and fine detail of Australia’s modern historical reality.’
The current crop of my Federal colleagues has produced a superabundance of books. Admittedly, most belong either to the category of rather dull and worthy policy blueprints for Australia’s future, or memoirs of the ‘where did it all go so wrong – it certainly wasn’t my fault’ variety: a very well-populated field of political literature which Ministers of the previous Government have made their own. But two recent works stand out as different and better: Chris Bowen’s The Money Men, which is a substantial, interesting and even scholarly work, and Christopher Pyne’s A Letter to My Children – a quirky and rather touching memoir of his late father and of the wellsprings of his own attraction to the vocation of politics.
In an age of shortened attention-spans, the trivialization of complex issues, and the replacement of serious public discussion with gibes of 140 characters or less, the need to promote a culture of reading has never been more important.
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