Peo­ple in pol­i­tics need to un­der­stand more than opin­ion polls. Sian Pow­ell asks the ex­perts what mem­bers of the new gov­ern­ment should read

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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.’’

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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