People in politics need to understand more than opinion polls. Sian Powell asks the experts what members of the new government should read
AS courtier, philosopher and man about town Francis Bacon put it: ‘‘ Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.’’ The select few Australians about to assume, or resume, the weighty burden of political office may consider preparing themselves for the job: in 16th- century argot, becoming as full of knowledge as possible. Reading particular books and seeing certain films could help the nation’s elected leaders see a larger picture, one beyond the minutiae of cabinet minutes.
One- time Liberal minister Warwick Smith understands all too well the tragedy of politics. Once the member for Bass in Tasmania, he held the most marginal seat in Australia by his fingernails and he was twice ousted by voters.
Smith, who served as the federal sports minister, says aspiring leaders should read Alan Marshall’s boyhood memoir I Can Jump Puddles . The Australian classic celebrates determination and it will serve to remind politicians that ‘‘ the little people’’ need as much attention as the bigger characters.
Smith also recommends A Fortunate Life by Albert Facey: ‘‘ It’s a reminder that as a politician you are a volunteer, and the life of each constituent is always paramount to each.’’
Now the chairman of ANZ for NSW and the ACT and chairman of the advisory board for Kerry Stokes’s Australian Capital Equity, Smith is a keen reader of books that analyse the political will. He likes The Triumph of Politics by David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director, which he says is a wonderful treatise on bureaucracy triumphing over politicians; and any biography of the Duke of Wellington, ‘‘ a great man and a warrior’’.
Other recommendations include Breach of Faith by Theodore White, ‘‘ the best book on the Nixon era, and a reminder of the ultimate faith a politician must keep with people as the core principal of democracy’’, and Blind Ambition by John Dean, a White House lawyer for Richard Nixon, jailed for his role in Watergate. ‘‘ The message is clear,’’ he says. ‘‘ Ambition is good when well directed to enhance communities, but when it becomes all about ‘ me’, judgment is flawed and consequences can be severe.’’
Most thinkers believe it can only help matters if politicians broaden their minds with books and films. The Australian philosopher Peter Singer, whose recent book The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush will be relaunched in a new edition at the end of the year, recommends a few classics for aspiring leaders. ‘‘ I think there are great works of literature that get you to reflect on power and what it means, like Tolstoy’s War and Peace for example,’’ he says on the phone from Princeton University in the US. ‘‘ But I find it hard to believe that if Kevin Rudd becomes prime minister he will have time to read Tolstoy. Maybe he’s already read him. He’s an educated person.’’ Singer, who wrote Animal Liberation , has become perhaps Australia’s best known philosopher and his often contentious works inspire endless debate.
‘‘ To Kill a Mockingbird ( by Harper Lee) is another book about standing up for your values, but in a thoughtful way, not in a rigid way,’’ he says. ‘‘ Because in the end, Atticus connives in a lie about the man who was trying to kill his daughter. It’s also about Atticus standing up for the law as he sees it in the face of a lot of community pressure. Politicians should be more prepared to resist pressure and do what they think is right.’’
Shane Maloney, author of the Murray Whelan political thrillers — including, most recently, Sucked In — has yet to be convinced that politicians read novels. After all, he points out, there is a gym in Parliament House but no bookshop. ‘‘ Some politicians like to read biographies; biographies are basically pornography for power- trippers,’’ he says. ‘‘ Competitive men need heroes to emulate, so this makes biographies popular.’’
Maloney remembers when the well- read former Labor leader Kim Beazley launched one of his books and told the story of a staffer who had said ‘‘ the book would be read for Mr Beazley and a precis produced for his edification’’.
‘‘ Peter Costello mocked Lindsay Tanner for writing a book and said the Labor Party was turning into a book club,’’ Maloney says. ‘‘ He might find Watership Down ( by Richard Adams) interesting. It’s not just a rabbit book. It’s well worth a look for someone in politics.’’ Maloney thinks politicians should occasionally read fiction, novels that ‘‘ give some insight into people’s psychology and are not simply the accumulation of facts and factoids’’.
He says reading novels can help people discover a sense of empathy: ‘‘ We can understand the astonishing range of human behaviour.’’ The Melbourne- based Maloney recommends Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring, an influential British writer in the 1930s and ’ 40s. ‘‘ This is the story of a man’s rise through the British Labour Party, from an impoverished background all the way to a knighthood. He starts despising privilege and ends almost wallowing in it.’’ Maloney also thinks the film The Candidate , with Robert Redford, about a man who is invited to stand for office, is worth seeing.
University of NSW academic Sarah Maddison, the co- author of Silencing Dissent , an analysis of the treatment of dissent under the Howard Government, thinks there are two broad categories of recommended reading for aspiring leaders.
‘‘ On the one hand I think a politician’s main role is to think very hard about the role of the state in people’s lives,’’ says the lecturer in the school of social sciences and international studies. To that end, she recommends a series of classic texts including Plato’s The Republic , Jean- Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract , and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty . ‘‘ These are the seminal texts in political theory,’’ she says.
Maddison points out that many politicians have ‘‘ fairly limited life experience’’. ‘‘ People like John Howard had a suburban upbringing, went straight from school to university, worked briefly as a lawyer and ( then went) straight into parliament.’’
For these people she recommends books that will open a window into other worlds, such as Quentin Beresford’s biography of Aboriginal leader Rob Riley, and Benang by Kim Scott, a novel about Aboriginal heritage. Maddison is working on a book about Aboriginal politics and says she thinks it is essential for politicians who have spent little or no time with Aboriginal people to read as broadly as possible about Aboriginal lives and aspirations.
Some political leaders already in office have a surprising taste in books. Bush apparently looks on reading as a competitive sport ( apart from his daily Bible readings). The US President was at one stage apparently racing to beat his former adviser Karl Rove in the number of books read in a year; some months ago he was reportedly ahead 60 to 50.
According to White House aides ( who cannot prove their list is anything more than a wish list), this year Bush has already barrelled through, among many other books, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky, American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin ( a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, an inventor of the atomic bomb), Richard Carwardine’s Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power , Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, and, interestingly, Geraldine Brooks’s Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women.
Jesuit priest and refugee advocate Frank Brennan, who famously inspired Paul Keating to declaim: ‘‘ talk about meddling priests’’, recommends a number of philosophical texts for parliamentarians’ enlightenment.
They include Ethics and Politics by Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘‘ a fine book of essays; he’s very critical of the compartmentalisation that goes on in moral life nowadays’’, Brennan says.
He also recommends Donald McDonald’s Highlights of the Boyer Lectures 1959- 2000. It will help politicians stay in touch with the thoughts of Australians who have done hard and sustained work on important issues, he adds. W. E. H. Stanner’s White Man Got No Dreaming is ‘‘ the best book of essays ever compiled on Aboriginal and white relations in Australia’’. Brennan also gives the thumbs up to A Common Humanity by Raimond Gaita, Taking Globalisation Seriously by Joseph Stiglitz and The Ethical Imagination by Margaret Somerville, ‘‘ a gutsy lady who is prepared to ask the hard questions about bioethics in a pluralist society’’.
He also recommends Les Murray’s Anthology of Australian Religious Poetry , saying: ‘‘ I think religious sentiment is important to a lot of Australians, but we don’t know how to talk about it publicly.
‘‘ And if any were so minded, I could send them an autographed copy of Acting on Conscience ,’’ he adds, referring to his recent book on ethics.
Former Labor senator Stephen Loosley is particularly fond of history and suggests some intriguing titles for politicians about to assume power. In the Australian context Loosley, who now works for investment firm Babcock & Brown, thinks John Edwards’s book Curtin’s Gift is valuable on the pressures of war on Australia.
Yet in television, Loosley says the ABC’s Labor in Power is more instructive viewing than the recent ABC Curtin dramatisation. ‘‘ It is very raw in its honesty, mainly because the people who recorded those interviews were expecting Labor to lose the 1993 election, and they thought it was more important to get the story out,’’ he says. ‘‘ In the event, Labor won.’’
He also recommends the film The Best Man, written by Gore Vidal and starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. It features a Kennedy character and a Nixon character, he says, but they’re both in the same party, and the story asks how politicians can achieve power without being corrupted. Like Maloney, Loosley praises the film The Candidate .
For readers, he suggests Five Days in London: May 1940 by John Lukacs. ‘‘ Churchill is the new prime minister and he is absolutely firm there will be no peace with Hitler,’’ Loosley says. ‘‘ Halifax and Rab Butler ( at the Foreign Office) are urging the signing of a peace ( deal). It’s quite brilliant.’’ And then there’s Advise and Consent by Allen Drury, which covers the balance between the US president and the Senate, and the appointment of a secretary of state during the murky McCarthyist period.
Yet perhaps even the most avid readers will fall headlong into the pitfalls of executive power, no matter how much they prepare themselves.
The reputedly enormously intelligent Bill Clinton, for example, has apparently always been a voracious reader and his favourites include an eclectic selection of books by Maya Angelou, Thomas Wolfe, Marcus Aurelius and George Orwell, as well as poetry by T. S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney and W. B. Yeats. Yet his terms as US president were marred by a series of scandals, culminating in the disaster of Monica Lewinsky.
His wife now aspires to high office, attempting to neatly sidestep the legacy of her husband’s peccadillos. Hillary Clinton, who will contest the Democratic Party’s primaries early next year, has a public list of favourite books. They include Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple , three of a long list of books written entirely by women authors. ‘‘ When I find myself with a free hour during the day, I try to sneak in some reading,’’ she told Oprah Winfrey’s books website.
Brigid Rooney, a lecturer in Australian studies at the University of Sydney, has compiled a list of books that ‘‘ our incoming political masters may find instructive, if not always delightful’’.
They include Scott’s Benang , Franz Kafka’s The Trial — ‘‘ required reading for any modern day political leader’’ — and Christina Stead’s House of All Nations . ‘‘ Few people know that Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities ( 1987) was gazumped years ago by Australia’s very own Christina Stead,’’ Rooney says. ‘‘ For a penetrating anatomy of the corruptions of high finance, the mystery of the market and voodoo economics, there’s no going past Stead’s epic satire. It should be required reading for any treasurer or finance minister.’’