As Bob Carr’s press popularity shows, journalists will always love a politician who can write
Watching the Canberra Press Gallery’s swooning response to the appointment of the new Foreign Minister Bob Carr instantly brought back memories of another aging public servant lured from the private sector, who also sported distinctive eyewear and displayed an often-mesmerising command of language. Spouting his known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, such was Donald Rumsfeld’s star power in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that fans wanted to know the brand of his rimless glasses and what grooming oil he used to slick back his silver hair. Such was the dexterity of his epistemological wordplay that ‘Rumstud’ press conferences had the feel, as a BBC colleague once observed, of ‘spanking sessions for a generation of defence nerds’. For the scribes of Capital Circle, forced for so long to pick at such meagre fare, Carr’s appearances are also likely to become something of a guilty pleasure. Why, LensCrafters might even witness a run on his spectacles.
When I first heard Bob Carr speak, I admit to going a little weak-kneed myself. The setting was the New South Wales State Library, which I dare say was much more to his liking than the parliament next door, where his job was to introduce a visiting American academic, the world-renowned Civil War historian and Yale professor David W. Blight. Carr launched into a fugue-like riff of such extravagant historical detail and complexity that Blight was rendered almost speechless. Then, as if to prove that his opening remarks weren’t a fluke, Carr gave another noteless tour de force when he delivered his vote of thanks.
The former premier is also one of the few Australian politicians who could walk out of Kevin Spacey’s Richard III and opt instead for the delights of a kebab, as he did before Christmas at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, without being accused of philistinism. And who else would have the intellectual brazenness to publish a literary memoir called Thoughtlines? In an age when most politicians seem intent on dumbing themselves down, Carr, an unapologetic egghead, has taken particular delight in dumbing himself up.
Carr will transfix the Press Gallery, however, not merely through his brainpower but because he is a more accomplished writer than most of the journalists assigned to cover him. Reporters always warm to writer-politicians, especially ones who regularly produce niftier phrases than they themselves can conjure. The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, a former colleague at the now defunct Bulletin and no mean stylist himself, set the tone the weekend after the appointment. ‘Carr was the Bully’s star turn,’ he reminisced, and its best writer ‘by a safe distance’. Casting his eye over Carr’s blog, Sheridan was struck by ‘its erudition and range’. The columnist David Penberthy, another gifted writer, also wrote admiringly of his Satre-quoting blog — a ‘great little website’ which would appeal to ‘anyone who loves reading’. Both welcomed the appointment of a minister blessed with a caramel voice and a golden pen.
Previous beneficiaries of these journalistic literary crushes have included Jack Kennedy, who actually started out as a cub reporter for Hearst newspapers and covered the inaugural meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. While JFK might not have been the sole author of his Pulitzer Prize-winning study Profiles in Courage — Ted Sorensen, his brilliant speechwriter, almost certainly lent a hand — he penned enough of it to impress the White House press pool. Barack Obama also came to enjoy the near-universal respect of campaign reporters, all of whom had devoured his autobiography Dreams From My Father and seen in it a quality of writing they themselves would struggle to match.
What of Australia? Shortly before seizing the Labor leadership, Kevin Rudd showed himself to be a decent phrasemaker in his rumination on faith in politics published in the Monthly. Then he self-sabotaged his literary reputation by using all those acronyms, obscure colloquialisms and that ‘I’ve got to zip’ geek talk. Tony Abbott, who like Carr also wrote for the Bulletin, also produced an impressive body of work.The standout is an eloquent essay on that hardy perennial, the quest for national identity, published in the Bulletin’s 1988 bicentenary special edition. ‘Time has killed British Australia,’ he pithily observed, ‘but has not yet put much in its place.’ Now, however, he prefers slogans to complete sentences: ‘stop the boats,’ and the like. Whereas Abbott prefers brevity, Malcolm Turnbull, another good writer, has a tendency to lapse into barristerial bluster. Former Treasurer Peter Costello, though a pungent columnist, seems more at home with numbers than the written word.
So Carr has long been the country’s pre-eminent political wordsmith, and did not take long to remind people of his class. On receiving the telephone call from Julia Gillard inviting him to Canberra, he quoted from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 acceptance speech: ‘I am enlisted for the duration.’ In answer to enquiries about the foreign policy thoughtlines published on his blog, he was boldly Rumsfeldesque. ‘It’s very unhealthy for you to go back and look at what I said previously,’ he told reporters. ‘You’ll only get confused with contradictions.’ Real spanking session stuff. Or, in Press Gallery parlance, a rhetorical ‘reverse wedgie’. And what of his ‘cheapskate hypnotist in a rundown circus’ barb?
As next year’s federal election approaches, the new Foreign Minister could also benefit from another journalistic trait: an affinity with politicians who not only write good stories but also produce good storylines. Barack Obama, America’s first viable black candidate, did that in 2008, and gave reporters the chance to compose a first draft of history that helped lift him all the way to the White House. Given the obvious calibre gap between Julia Gillard and her new appointee, many Canberra scribes will be itching to write him into the Lodge. It seems implausible, an invented narrative unlikely to unfold. But these are unpredictable times, and as Donald Rumsfeld once told his admiring Pentagon press pack: ‘Stuff happens.’
Nick Bryant is the author of Adventures in Correspondentland.