A Pill for Your Ills

curtin.jpeg

I’m indebted to “Santamaria socialist” The Currency Lad for his recommendation of John Edwards’ new book Curtin’s Gift: Reinterpreting Australia’s Greatest Prime Minister. I read a lot of Australian political history at Uni, but not much in the way of political biography – though I devoured American political biographies. I’m actually not going to write today about Curtin’s contribution to Australian history and society, but about something that occurred to me while reading the first chapter of Edwards’ book. It was his description of Curtin’s personality – a description which I think has a certain archaic ring to it now.

IMAGE SOURCE: The John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library

The ABC last year ran a series on the health problems and foibles of political leaders – Altered Statesmen – Churchill liked his scotch and often slept in til late in the morning, Roosevelt had polio, and Kennedy had Addison’s Disease, the treatment for which, it’s often been argued, may have been injurious to his decision making. Going back further in time, Lincoln suffered from deep depression. I don’t buy the argument that these leaders’ performance in office was hostage to their health. [Currency made the same point last year but I find navigating the archives on his site a bit forbidding so perhaps he’ll email me a link]. All three were great political leaders (perhaps the case is arguable for JFK, but his legacy and place in history are themselves important). One of my political heroes, FDR, was seriously ill in his last two terms of office, died on 12 April 1945 only a few short months after his re-election, and certainly most of those close to him when he fought his fourth Presidential campaign knew that he would probably not survive his term.

Yet Roosevelt displayed great courage in facing adversity and illness, and worked til the end on shaping a legacy that profoundly altered American society and international politics, and whose resonances live on today, despite the fact that the half century of his death is rapidly approaching. Roosevelt’s biographer, Rex Tugwell, wrote in The Democratic Roosevelt:

The world seemed to go to pieces after the war. And Franklin Roosevelt was no longer around to help lay better foundations… We are a lucky people. We have had leaders when the national life was at stake. If it had not been for Washington we might not have become a nation; if it had not been for Lincoln we might have been split in two; if it had not been for this later democrat we might have succumbed to a dictatorship. For that was the alternative, much in the air, when he took charge… His attitudes and the devices he used are the ones called for among us. They will have to be improved and used again. Our troubles are not over; they will never be over. We must hope for other such leaders in other days of crisis… They can learn from studying… Roosevelt…

Jim Bishop’s excellent FDR’s Last Year documents the pathos of FDR’s fight against death as he tried to embed the international vision he lived for.

Similarly, Edwards writes movingly of Curtin’s profound melancholy. It’s not a term we hear very often these days. It has a rather archaic, Nineteenth Century ring. In an age, where as Michel Foucault observed, medicalisation of the soul is a form of social control and regulation, we’re prone to diagnosing all sorts of aspects of people’s character and pathologising it. Mark Latham, though not a political leader I admire, was subject to rumours about possible psychiatric causes for his “crazybrave” style. I take leave to doubt that we’d elect anyone of the stature of Curtin or Roosevelt today. The price we pay for the medicalisation of behaviour, and the intrusiveness of the press, is the white-bread politician. Perhaps we need a politician whose soul is marked by a touch of melancholy?

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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C.L.
2022 years ago

These are exactly the thoughts that occurred to me after watching ‘Altered Statesmen’ on the ABC – the series to which you refer. The weakness in many notable leaders – sometimes profound – seems precisely to be the trait in which the intangible quiddity of their greatness in fact resides.

Kennedy, for example, has been deified, dethroned, rehabilitated, debunked and resurrected all over again during the course of the last 40 years. Having read about him in some depth, I’m now convinced he was truly a great leader, with sound instincts on political (if not, personal) matters and a quality that can only be described as heroic in relation to his desire to serve in war and combat ceaseless physical pain.

Would a modern Roosevelt have to master the trickery of appearing to stand in photographs or go to elaborate lengths to be conveniently seated, as if by happenstance, whenever the world was watching? Well, it couldn’t be done now. Luckily, we wouldn’t be such a tough and intolerant room to please.

Or would we?

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

That’s very well put, C.L. Thanks also for the reference to the name of the series. I’ve now updated the post accordingly.