I have always liked writing. I was encouraged to write by Alister Brass. He was very much my mentor. He died of AIDs in 1986. He was a great guy. I have kept writing. He had taught me a lot about myself, and how someone who was a little older than myself could have lived a fuller life than mine. I miss him every day.
I always wonder where Murdoch fits in all this. Alister’s father, Douglas, was one of Murdoch’s first editors. I think he had a big effect on Murdoch, in the days when his world may have been that of the idealist.
However, I worry about all this technology that has sprung up in an unregulated space and where the forces of good and evil are constantly doing battle. Can I for whom my first written words required an inkwell; and when even the biro did not exist, adapt.
I find myself living in a world in a space which is getting smaller because the demands for instant anything have become the norm – money and fame are generally high on the instant agenda. Words are airbrushed away.
So why bother to write? Because I want to, and I have little time left. So here goes.
A singular New Zealander
One of the growing problems with my generation who grew up in a world where men were conditioned to take the lead is that some of us never adapted. After all, when I first went to dancing classes, men went forward in the dance and women went backwards. My mother stayed at home; it was the expectation that women would be in a helpless situation where we men were expected to open the door, let women go first; we made sure we walked on the gutter side of the footpath. It was called chivalry. Thus we grew up in a world where women were considered to be inferior (they were paid less and still are). If the parents had money, the girls went to finishing school; if not, they were selected for lower paid jobs, which were considered “suitable”.
Since then I have lived through a period of progressive gender assertiveness, but I wonder whether anything much has changed over my lifetime in the relationships between the sexes. For instance we may have the first Anglican woman bishop, but the Vatican looks to be much the same, old passive aggressive men in fancy dress and curious red hats.
However there is always a tipping point. Perhaps that tipping point is Jacinda Ardern. When I read her CV, all my prejudices are invoked – lapsed Mormon, professional student politician – yet when she spoke and when she moved around after the Canterbury massacre – her very presence evoked in me a sensation that I have not had since I was a young man – the same as I had about John Kennedy.
Not that I was an early convert to Kennedy; I think I much preferred Hubert Humphrey, a remnant from the New Deal days but with a passion for social action.
However, Kennedy was a reformer. He grew on a young man’s consciousness. He made mistakes but while he lived, he served to remind us that there was a better world and he was there to inspire us to take responsibility for our actions and to say it as it should be. In those days communication was grainy black and white and the sound tended to blur the voice, but the intent was there. He made life all seem worthwhile – somebody, however distant, to try to emulate. I cried when I heard that Saturday morning in November 1963 that he had been assassinated.
And what happened next? Kids a bit younger than me died in a pointless war, which succeeded in dividing the world in which I grew up and left me confused in a way I was not when Kennedy was alive. I think others have labelled it “political entropy” and one wades on through this disorder for a long time.
Over this period, politicians have lost the confidence of the public. Camelot never existed, and the raft of exposés have portrayed Kennedy as less than the Camelot myth. But the important point is missed – in those years from his inauguration in 1961 to his death in 1963 – to me and many others he could be summed up in one word – a paragon.
Now I am an old man, and seeing this woman, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, she is the first politician since Kennedy to cause me to believe, perhaps that to me she an exemplar against the fear and loathing that has characterised so much of what passes for political debate. I, like many, am just frustrated by the low level of debate. There is no longer any consideration in this Me All The Time rent-seeking political crop for policy discussion.
Yet Jacinda Ardern gives me hope. Her words – her demeanour of grace, compassion, resolve, her ability to call out the bully – the courage of making herself a target for all the “unspeakables”. She is indeed a paragon.
Just as I learnt from Alister, watching him succumbing to AIDS; now at a distance and not knowing the woman I think I have now adapted. Taken a long time, I must say.
However, Prime Minister if I have the privilege of ever meeting you, please do not hug me. I am not a hugger.
“True” is the not only word that starts with “Tru”
President Harry Truman wrote to his wife from New York on 14 June 1946:
Went to Hard Rock Club party at the Statler last night and had a good time. Lost twenty-six dollars, a quarter at a time, between 9:00 P.M. and midnight, but enjoyed the evening.
The President loved playing poker. I have been to his “Little White House” at Key West and seen the innocuous worktable flipped over to become a green baize card table. Thus, I recognised that “good time” meant such a poker game. The Hard Rock Club were associates who had campaigned and accompanied him to the Potsdam conference.
Meanwhile, over in the Jamaica Hospital in Queen’s County, for Mary and Fred a child was born – for them a son was given. And he would be called Donald who, as he found later “the government is indeed upon his shoulders” and he of course would totally agree with the prophet’s summation that he be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
But some would dispute “of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end and from his throne and over his kingdom establishing righteousness from that time on forever”. But then one would not expect Isaiah to get everything right.
However, there are interesting parallels in the presidential careers of Truman and Trump.
Truman scarcely rated a mention when he became Vice-President and seems to have been selected as an afterthought by Roosevelt for the 1944 election. Trump was dismissed as a New York businessman with a checkered past when his candidacy was mooted.
Yet each man won elections against “establishment” candidates. None of the pundits gave Truman a hope in 1948; nor did they give Trump any hope in 2016. Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate, had been as successful a person in public life as Hilary Clinton, both with New York affiliations. They projected a starchy appeal to the people.
Both Truman and Trump have been accused of making impetuous decisions. One instance involved Percy Spender, the Australian ambassador to the United States. He chanced upon Harry Truman in a foul mood. Truman’s daughter was an aspiring singer whom the press loved to lampoon. He had been enraged by one of these reports when Spender turned up. Sensing an opportunity, since Truman was in one of those moods, Spender got him to agree to the substance of the ANZUS pact. At the time the State Department had been strongly opposed to this. Truman was obviously in a volcanic mood. Criticism of his daughter amounted to “fake news”, and the presence of another “outsider” requesting something which had been blocked by the establishment – “well, give ‘em hell” (meaning the State Department).
Both men inherited the aftermath of a world at war. However, Truman, despite being myopic, saw active duty as an artillery officer in World War One. In contrast, Trump avoided military service.
The war experience left a deep impression on Truman. He was the only United States President to authorise the use of the atomic bomb. It was a calculated assessment about a nation unable to recognize that “it was all over” – and it took two bombs. Hiroshima was not enough; Nagasaki brought realisation, at least to the Emperor, that Tokyo might be next.
The nuclear option has been regularly canvassed by Trump as a piece of braggadocio, because the North Koreans continue to taunt him, even though resolution of the Korean Peninisula standoff would be his Ultimate Deal.
Truman went through a very tough period after the North Koreans invaded the South in 1950. This coincided with the rise of the fervent anti-communist Senator McCarthy, whose fear-mongering activities played out in the interrogation of people who had become the “foe” – a secret Communist fifth column determined to undermine the American Way – conspiracy theory run amok. He was abetted by Roy Cohn, then a young New York lawyer. Cohn survived the eventual downfall of McCarthy, went back to the law and in 1986 was disbarred as a lawyer for “unethical,” “unprofessional” and, in one case, “particularly reprehensible” conduct. He by that time had become a mentor for a young Donald Trump.
Truman, the populist, tried to restore order to a chaotic world – he knew the importance of wise counsel, sensible advice and being able to listen. Truman was self-centred; most politicians are. It comes with the territory. But his response to chaos was to agree to the Marshall plan, indispensible in the resurrection of Europe. Yet just as he could go against advice as he did with the ANZUS pact; he could take blame. His decision to fire Macarthur at the height of the Korean War was very unpopular, although later he was supported unanimously by a bipartisan Senate Committee in the decision.
Trump, the populist, has initiated chaos, although his apologists would say that he has shaken the system up and it was about time that somebody did that. The world remains at war, just as it did with Truman. The ultimate North Korean aim of reunification of the Korean peninsula remains as true today as it was then.
The Middle East still suffers from the disastrous drawing of borders by the so-called Great Powers after World War One. Truman against the opposition of his foreign affair advisers ensured that his was the first country to recognise the creation of Israel. Unlike the decision involving Spender, this was a very considered decision, which fractured many relationships in government.
Nevertheless, Truman became so unpopular that he did not bother standing again in 1952, and after an abortive try by Macarthur for Republican Party candidate, another general, Dwight Eisenhower was selected – outwardly a much calmer person than Truman.
Both were leaders; they consulted and they made decisions based on facts as they knew it. They did not confabulate, nor go out of their way to encourage the meaningless or antagonise capriciously. Leadership requires a sense of humour to counteract the destructive triad in politicians, which I have previously written about: insomnia, isolation and boredom. A sense of humour is one of the less explored areas in its contribution to good leadership.
Truman had a sense of leadership. In time his legacy has been recognised so that he is now considered one of the great US Presidents. Unfortunately, Trump seems not to provide the same level of mature leadership. “Tweeting” threats and insults that may play to a selected audience is no substitute.
Truman was a constructive populist; Trump’s basic instinct seems to be to destroy, with no other aim than to bully others. It is best remembered that those that you have created have the power to pull you down. Truman never built such a group, but Trump has such a group, which he has to continually oil lest it dry out and crack.
For me, for many years I have had a replica in my study of the sign that Truman had on his desk; it reads: “The Buck Stops Here”. Trump, as far as I know, does not have this sign, but he may as well have. However, it would have a different meaning than it did for Truman.
MOUSE WHISPER: Heard in the Versace corner shop in Dirranbandi: “Of course the Liberal Party is a broad church, it is full of knaves.”