Why the undead play politics

STONE the crows! Since when did minders matter as much as ministers? Since Barry Cassidy explained the role of Kevin Rudd’s staffers Alister Jordan and Lachlan Harris, in his downfall:

Rudd’s office was incapable of managing the power put in their hands by the prime minister, and by the way, by extension the cabinet. The ministers did whatever the leaders wanted because that was a pathway to promotion or an easier life. Alister only had to stare and glare at them and they backed off like kittens. They lost all their dignity. And probably to this day Jordan and Harris don’t understand how the current they created ended Rudd’s prime ministership. [i]

And since Rod Cavalier bucketed apparatchiks who consider politics a career not a cause.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as blue collar unions were no longer able to rely on talent merging from the ranks so their benighted ageing leaderships brought in tertiary- educated young blokes with a stint in the ALP, political operatives who did not come from the ranks of the workforce covered by the union. More likely than not, these operatives had never held nor would ever hold a real job in their lives – ‘real’ in this case meaning one where the employer would not tolerate the employee working on behalf of the ALP or its interests during working hours. … The political class took control of the ALP head offices at the same time. [ii]

But even minders have mates and one of their own has stuck up for staffers:

They’re some of the hardest working and most idealistic people you could meet. Few aspire to run for office. They have a burning commitment to their areas of policy expertise … (and) a passion for public service that frequently sees them rise at 5.30am, leave the office at midnight, dash home for the birth of children, and be reduced to walking zombies by the end of a parliamentary sitting fortnight through lack of sleep.[iii]

Sometimes rogue zombies. Anne Tiernan’s scholarly study of the staffer suggests:

… there are concerns that their presence has challenged, and some argue diminished, the role of the public service, in the provision of advice and support to ministers. There are particular worries about the accountability of ministerial staff and about their conduct and behaviour. [iv]

Are the Crows correct in anticipating industrial action by the Federation of Flacks and Fixers, who are cross at all the commentary, with a cross claim from the Zombie Anti-Defamation league?

They might have a case, not because their feelings are hurt – people bothered by anything short of physical torture should not be in politics. Rather, they should object to all the attention. Because the minder’s MO is to stay out of sight while pointing out the political minefields and policy options to the boss.

But in bucketing or beatifying minders, both sides of the argument are mistaking effect for cause – advisors’ performance depends on the political process and whether you are for them or ‘agin them depends on whether you are optimistic or otherwise, about the way we are governed – that and human nature.

Optimists assume good men and women can make the system work better. Realists, reply staffers, are prisoners of the process which stops anything ever occurring.

However in expecting staffers to change the world by working hard or knowing their place, both sides assume they have super-human powers.

The Crows blame Josh Lyman for creating an idealised sense of what staffers can do and Malcolm Tucker (with assistance from Tony in The Hollow Men) for presenting them as abusive and aggressive, malicious and mendacious – on good days.

On TV’s West Wing Josh Lyman was the deputy chief of staff in the Bartlett administration and had the top advisor spot with the next president, Matt Santos.[v] Lyman, supposedly based on Rahm Emanuel, was impossibly hard working, brilliant beyond belief and passionate about public service – which was good given he and his mates in the executive office ran the country.

Conceived as a Clintonian Camelot, with no lies about Monica Lewinsky, the seven series show is an expression of faith in the abilities of elite policy intellectuals to run the country much better than the mugs elected to congress. As creator Aaron Sorkin put it:

The show is kind of a valentine to public service. It celebrates our institutions. It celebrates education often. These characters are very well educated, and while sometimes playfully snobby about it, there is, in all of them, a love of learning and appreciation of education. [vi]

Certainly Lyman made mistakes; he once upset a blue-dog Democrat so much that the senator changed sides.[vii]

But he was a policy master and a political genius. He returned to grace by having President Bartlett walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, to see the Republican speaker of the house, who was blocking appropriations, demonstrating Democrat humility and GOP arrogance.[viii]

There cannot be a staffer on the planet who does not dream of such an impossible achievement, combing brilliant politics and high principles, what moralists wish mortals working for ministers could achieve.

Malcolm Tucker would have done it differently, overwhelming his opponents with obscene invective and intimidation. Tucker is the core character of British political comedy The Thick of It (In the Loop a movie length version ran early this year). [ix] Supposedly based on Alastair Campbell with a bit of Baron Mandelson of Foy, Tucker is chief political minder of a Blair-esque prime minister (who happily is never seen).[x]

Tucker is consumed by politics and has no horizon beyond the news cycle. And the only thing that distinguishes him from the cruel but incompetent staffers he terrifies is his superior guile and ability to abuse. The crows do not avert their eyes easily but there are episodes in the last series that they can barely watch, out of compassion for minister Nicola Murray and her three senior staffers as they are brought low by their own ineptitude and inability to accept the news cycle is a super-collider that destroys spin and spinners.[xi]

And the vulgarity of Tucker’s language is enough to make crows blush, which being blackbirds is saying something.

While all the West Wing staffers are decent human beings (except the pair who are mean to Ashley Hayes because she is a Republican) everybody in The Thick of It is willing to lie to everybody and knife anybody to hold onto their jobs.[xii] While the West Wingers worry about policy the staffers in Thick of It are terrified of doing anything at all for fear it plays poorly with Tucker.

The point is that both shows are improbable for the way they respectively beatify and bastardise staffers making them utterly incredible.

No human could work like Lyman and have as few personal faults and as many political skills. Emanuel on the other hand is reported to have a savage tongue and tough temperament. As Bradley Whitford, who played Lyman put it in the early days of the Obama administration, “I actually heard Obama say the other day, ‘People think Rahm is a bad guy, but he has a really soft side. He volunteers to teach profanity to underprivileged kids’ ”. [xiii] And while Emanuel is a brilliant staffer and an okay congressman, we will only know what sort of campaigner he really is when the Chicago mayoral race (the election is in February) gets going.

And no human could be as consistently cruel and maintain such a high standard of abuse as Tucker for as long. For all the legends about Alastair Campbell, a staffer cannot treat cabinet ministers with contempt and get away with it forever.

The reality of the political process is it is chaos piled on anarchy and no one is ever absolutely on top of everything. It’s a system where there are multiple competing points of power, ensuring no individual is ever omniscient or omnipresent and those who think they are don’t last long.

When commentators attack staffers as Tuckeresque thugs they condemn people when it is the nature of the political beast that is actually upsetting them. When people praise minders as Lyman-like super achievers they forget that they are human, that the best of them are brilliant one day, ordinary the next – unless they have turned into zombies.

Endnotes


[i] Barrie Cassidy, “The killing of tyrannosaurus Rudd”, ABC, The Drum October 18, @ www.abc.net.au/news/stories recovered on October 23

[ii] Rodney Cavalier, Power Crisis: The self-destruction of a state Labor Party Cambridge University Press, 2010) 52

[iii] Dennis Glover, “Unsung servants of Labor ideals” The Australian, October 22. But presumably a  smarter nicer undead compared to the zombies who Doug Cameron says sat on the Labor backbench when Mr Rudd was leader, Georgina Robinson, “MPs like ‘zombies under Rudd, says Labor senator”, Sydney Morning Herald, October 25

[iv] Anne Tiernan, Power without responsibility (University of New South Wales Press, 2007) 13

[v] The West Wing had a patchy presence on Australian TV, screening on Nine, very late on days the network changed without, it seemed, telling anybody. It then moved to pay TV and the ABC, which screened it as quick as it could.

[vi] Jim Lehrer Newshour, “Aaron Sorkin”, PBS Online Newshour, September 27 2000, @http://www.pbs.org/newshour/media/west_wing/sorkin.html, recovered on  October 30

[vii] “Constituency of One”, West Wing series 5, episode 3, first US screening October 29 2003,

[viii] “Shutdown”, West Wing series 5, episode 8, first US screening November 19 2003

[ix] As far as the Crows know only series one has ever screened here and the second two are just about impossible to find locally on DVD, however Amazon can oblige

[x] Johnny Dee, “Peter Capaldi: Malcolm Tucker is Alastair Campbell. But Mandelson is in there too”, The Guardian, October 17 2009

[xi] Anybody who believes minders can ever control media coverage should watch The Thick of It series three, episode five, (first British screening  21 November 2009) in which Minister Murray and her Tory shadow are savaged on talkback radio

[xii] “And it’s surely to their credit”, West Wing, series two, episode 5, first US screening January 11 2000

[xiii] “Bradley Whitford on playing Rahm Emanuel”, New York Magazine, February 13 2009