Sandy Levinson comments on recently deceased senior American political journalist Tim Russert:
David Remnick has a very fine comment on Russert in this week’s New Yorker. He notes, among other things, Russert’s thorough preparation for his interviews and his desire to make news by trapping his subjects in politically embarrassing conversations where they were contradicting what they had previously said. Remnick writes, “Google was his tool and Gotcha his game.”
Along with shallow footie commentary-style “analysis” of public affairs, the “gotcha” and the “gaffe” are the stock-in-trade of Australian political journos too. It’s arguably an inevitable consequence of mass democracy where most people pay little attention to politics and are only attracted by a glib “Hey Martha” story they can instantly understand and digest without effort. But the media’s “gotcha” obsession is irritating just the same, and may even be damaging to effective political governance.
Witness the press gallery glee earlier this week when Kevin Rudd misread his cheat sheet notes and quoted the Budget inflation projection as 3.75% instead of 3.25%. It’s such a relatively rare event given Rudd’s obsessive preparation and public servant-crushing work ethic. Oh for the days of poor old Kim Beazley, who could regularly be counted on to mix up Karl Rove and Rove McManus, one Ian McFarlane with another, or remember the names of only 4 of his 5 South Australian Senators.
Fairfax’s Annabel Crabb now seems to be trying to restore the halcyon days of Bomber gaffes by embarrassing the current crop of pollies into abandoning their cheat sheets and winging it on memory during Question Time. She even cites Brendan Nelson as the very model of a modern major-general political leader:
He laces his oratory with detail both complex and obscure; within one sentence, he might canvass the GDP of Swaziland and then mention the bloke who runs the Mudgee IGA, just to show he’s not faking it.
I don’t like her chances. Given Nelson’s current poll ratings and performance, it’s probably not her best argument. Moreover, Crabb’s next sentence should have provided her with a big clue as to why:
His obsession with memorising facts and figures, while he was education minister, quickly earned him the nickname “Rain Man”.
Nelson’s micro-managing style made him a dreadful Education Minister, presiding over development of a system of federal oversight in which DEST interferes in every detail of the administration of the tertiary education sector in a way that makes rational, efficient, flexible management all but impossible. Although I don’t have “hands-on” experience of his record in the Defence portfolio, I suspect it was similarly obsessively inept.
There’s a strong argument that you actually don’t want a bean-counting detail person as a minister, still less prime minister. They can employ trusted, carefully selected bean counters to “sweat the small stuff”. A leader’s job is to ensure a coherent “big picture” policy direction is maintained, and to keep abreast of how those policy directions fit with the government’s strategic and tactical political thrust.
In fact one emerging criticism of Rudd is that he may in some respects be a “detail” person without a “big picture” orientation or a coherent policy direction, obsessing over finessing the details of controlling the 24 hour news cycle without taking the time to reflect on where it leads.
“Politics is like an umbrella, you need to build alliances,” he says. “What Wayne (Goss) and Kevin did was systematically pull out the spokes of the umbrella until it wasn’t an umbrella any more.
“We won Queensland in 1989 after the Coalition was battered by the Fitzgerald corruption stuff. We should have been in government for 10 years. Instead we won in ’92, limped over the line in ’95 and were out six months later.”
One senior public service figure in Canberra – a strong supporter of the Labor Party – analysed it this way: Rudd is trying to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Naturally, as Prime Minister, he’s the conductor. But he also wants to play every instrument. He’s technically proficient at many of them, but the audience is watching one man trying to do everything.
It’s too early to begin predicting a one term Labor government, especially with the inept Nelson as alternative PM. However, with difficult issues surrounding oil prices, inflation and unduly raised expectations, and a micro-managing PM who seemingly can’t see the wood for the trees or learn to delegate, I suspect either Turnbull or Costello could well and truly give Rudd a run for his money much sooner than anyone imagined in the light of Labor’s decisive election victory and still stratospheric poll ratings.