This (political) life
Published in The Weekend Australian, May 3-4:
At LAX I get steered on to a bus with other passengers to take us to the Qantas jet. A flight attendant mumbles an introduction to one of them: a tall guy with long blond hair — right out of an SS recruiting poster, could have modelled for Arno Breker’s Third Reich sculpture — accompanied by his personal trainer.
It’s clear she assumes I know the actor, but it’s another one of those moments when I run up against celebrity culture. While his persona screams “Hollywood”, I have no idea.
It happened when I was NSW premier, and was especially a problem in the Olympics. I’ve never mastered celebrity stuff. I barely know which is Prince Harry and which Prince William, certainly could not pick between Lady Gaga and Paris Hilton, don’t know their nationalities. I have never been able to fix in my head the names of captains of Australian sporting teams.
In fact, in the pantheon of sporting heroes I would probably recognise only Cathy Freeman or Ian Thorpe. I know it is a disability, especially in Australia, this matter of being born without a sporting gene.
But it works both ways. A bloke came up to me in a Sydney street and said, “Ahhhhh, you’re one of those prime minister fellas.” I accepted the indictment. It did not offend. Why assume everyone has to follow the manoeuvring of the political caste, given we sell ourselves so badly?
It’s a relief to live in a society where one can get by not knowing political leaders. A democracy leaves people to tend their gardens; in North Korea you’ve got to recognise Standing Committee members and the Dear Leader’s forebears. It could be a measure of a healthy mind that he simply recognises someone like me as being “one of those prime minister fellas”.
I float in a similar vagueness about the dramatis personae of celebrity magazines.
For all I know, that Australian Hollywood success on the flight out of LAX might not have recognised me, his country’s foreign minister. After all, he moves in more Olympian circles. He too might simply record that, on the same flight struggling into those prized pyjamas, was one of these “prime minister fellas”.
No complaint. As Bill Clinton was fond of saying, our differences make us interesting, our common humanity is more important.
On the plane I watch the movie A Royal Affair, about the advent of the Enlightenment under absolute monarchy in 18th-century Denmark under the mentally ill King Christian VII. One image stands out: a peasant’s body, tortured on the rack by the king’s police, found dumped in a field. A symbol of royal absolutism.
Who can say the Enlightenment was for nothing?