Just when Tony Abbott thought he had found his adopted son, Hunter S Thompson put a gun to his own head and pulled the trigger. Perhaps Thompson burned his way into Abbott’s mind that day — the emotion of the time made everything that happened then seem more intense and significant. And now, with his ministerial career flashing before his eyes, Abbott turns to the dead journalist for reassurance.
"In a democracy people usually get the kind of government they deserve – and they deserve what they get."
The words are from the mouth of Thompson’s fictional character Raoul Duke. But the first part of the quote Thompson attributes to failed presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson. In 1968, Richard Nixon was poised to take the presidency. If what Stevenson said is true, wrote Thompson, "then 1968 is probably the year in which the great American chicken comes home to roost… either for good or for ill."
Thompson loathed Nixon. He saw him as a political technician without passion or principle — "his ‘skill’ is nine parts experience to one part natural talent, and his concept of politics is entirely mechanical", he wrote. Abbott feels the same way about Rudd. He calls him the most "political of politicians" and likens him to the star of a soap opera — a contrived product of his political handlers.
In his speech, Abbott "tries to probe what’s happening between voters and the Howard Government that threatens to deprive it of the usual reward for being good at its job." Why, he wonders, has the public been led astray by a manipulator like Rudd? But is there a sub-text here — a whiff of sour grapes? If voters are so fickle and so unable to look after their own interests, how much of an honour is it, really, to win their vote?
The government-they-deserve quote can too easily look like the self-justifying thinking of losers — candidates who deal with the pain of failure by denigrating the intelligence of the electorate. According to some sources Stevenson was on the campaign trail when a supporter assured him he’d "get the vote of every thinking man" in America. Stevenson said thank you, but added that it wouldn’t be enough. To win, he needed a majority.
PS: Nobody seems quite sure where the "government they deserve" quip comes from. H L Mencken made a similar comment in 1916 — "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."