Power Play: How the Childish Behavior of Top Politicians Shapes the World

  • Share
  • Read Later

Democracy is an exercise in adulthood. We don’t want our elected leaders to style themselves, as despots so often do, the fathers of our nations, but we assume them to be responsible grown-ups, focused on carrying out the mandates we have granted them. It’s a nice idea. Unfortunately the more we find out about our political masters—and in this twittery, wittering, wikileaking world, scarcely a day goes by without a politician being exposed or exposing himself—the more we are forced to confront the unpalatable truth. Our politicians really do represent us—in all our fallibility. And while most official histories are narratives of great men (and more occasionally great women) making big decisions, the real histories look rather different. Principle plays a part but so does spite. Childish feuding is a potent force in public life.

Documents published on June 10 by Britain’s Daily Telegraph show that force in action in 2005 as Chancellor Gordon Brown and his supporters worked to oust the newly re-elected Prime Minister Tony Blair. At first glance, there’s nothing hugely revelatory about the letters and memos. That there was a poisonous rivalry between the Labour Party’s two most powerful men has been acknowledged even by the key players themselves. In his autobiography, A Journey, Blair reveals the deterioration in their relationship as Brown realizes Blair is in no hurry to honor a pact struck in 1994, three years before Blair’s first electoral victory, that at some point Blair would make way for Brown to become premier. By 2007, as Blair finally prepares to hand over power, after enduring Brown’s “venomous” moods and a campaign of internal opposition by Brown’s lieutenants, he gives this cold-eyed assessment of his one-time friend: Brown, opines Blair, lacks the intuitive skills that are so important in politics; he has “Political calculation, yes. Political feelings, no. Analytical intelligence, absolutely. Emotional intelligence, zero.”

You can almost taste Blair’s pleasure in writing these words, from the safety of the opposite side of the playground, after both men were out of office. Nyah, nyah, can’t catch me. The Telegraph‘s trove illuminates earlier phases of the game, before the players emerged into the open. Rancor not only slowed the pace of the eventual succession—in 2006, Blair offered a deal to stand down, but rescinded it, the newspaper claims “incensed by the rudeness” of one of Brown’s trusted lieutenants—but also diverted much of the energy that should have gone into governing Britain. Blair was constantly distracted by the battle; Brown and his cabal were consumed by plotting.

We’ll never know how different the Labour legacy would look if the men had worked together. Blair blamed Brown for blocking key public service reforms. Blair’s tendency to minimize the involvement of his own Cabinet in key decisions, including decisions that committed British troops to wars, may have been less pronounced if he did not fear the anger and opposition of his internal rival. Their personal disagreements wreaked consequences far beyond the Westminster schoolyard, not least in sowing the seeds of Labour’s electoral defeat last year. (The election issued in a coalition government formed from two parties that had vigorously campaigned against each other; its leaders have thus far managed a better show of harmony than the single-party government they succeeded.)

One of the documents to make its way mysteriously to the Telegraph underscores the limitations of political re-branding. A 31-page report prepared for Brown in 2006 analyzed his weaknesses as a future Prime Minister. He was seen as “steadfast” and “robust” like a family car, good qualities but not as alluring to voters as the “sports car” David Cameron; Brown also suffered from the perception that he was “a dour numbers man”. To improve his image, he was advised to “show humor, character, charm” and to take more opportunities to show off these facets on the sofas of daytime chat shows. He duly followed that advice but never mutated in the public consciousness from Volvo to BMW, Ford Fusion to Ferrari.

At first glance, Sarah Palin’s image problem may seem far removed from Brown’s. Nobody would accuse her of being dour. Or a numbers person. Nor is she renowned for her grasp of events beyond U.S. borders, so arranging a visit with Margaret Thatcher in London may have seemed like a simple idea, and one that would deliver the public relations benefits of a photo opportunity with a Conservative woman even detractors took seriously.  Palin’s aides first suggested the meeting last year. Thatcher’s aides declined and are understood to have made clear that the former Prime Minister’s delicate health and well publicized dementia ruled out any such arrangements in future too. After a renewed and public attempt to override these objections and secure a Palin-Thatcher tryst when Palin passes through London next month, one of Thatcher’s allies lashed out. “Lady Thatcher will not be seeing Sarah Palin. That would be belittling for Margaret,” the unnamed source told Guardian journalist Nicholas Watt.

After Rush Limbaugh piled into the brawl on his radio show, questioning Watt’s account, the Guardian journalist gave further details on his blog about why Palin had been rebuffed:

Members of the Thatcher circle are highly protective of the former Prime Minister, 86, who has suffered from dementia for some years. They ration her appearances with great care and are careful to ensure that she is not used by unsuitable politicians. This is why they feel so strongly that Thatcher should not meet Palin: they believe it would be beneath the dignity of the Iron Lady to meet such a lightweight figure who would use the meeting to burnish her credentials as the keeper of the Reagan flame.

A desire to resist the further infantilization of politics? Perhaps. But Watt’s source undermined the case by resorting the language of the playground. “Sarah Palin is nuts,” said the Thatcher ally. On the basis of such taunts are decisions made, key relationships soured, governments molded. It’s not a comforting thought.

See Sarah Palin The Movie: A Sneak Peek