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Great Legacies and Bad Memories: How will Future Generations See Our Current Crop of Leaders?

Given enough time, even the most reviled politician has a chance at redemption.

by Lee Zachariah
Mar 25 2015, 1:03am

Image by Ben Thomson

The tributes poured in from every corner of politics for ex-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. The Right remembered the politician he was. The Left remembered the statesman he'd become. Fraser's slide across the spectrum meant there was something for everyone, even if — as Paula Matthewson pointed out — he hadn't actually moved: it was the rest of the world that had shifted around him.

Labor MP Mark Dreyfus, the 14th Parliamentarian in a long line of tributes on Monday, summed his own feelings up thusly: "I was fortunate, late in his life, to develop a friendly relationship with Fraser who I came to greatly admire and respect. I never confessed to Fraser that as a young student I had been a keen participant in demonstrations and rallies against him." And that right there should sum up the tenor of not just these tributes, but all tributes.

The 1975 dismissal was arguably the most tempestuous time in Australian politics, one that even the tumult of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years cannot unseat. He's the tl;dr version of it: in 1975, Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam had a small majority in the House of Representatives, but the Opposition-controlled Senate refused to pass appropriations bills, creating a deadlock. Governor-General Sir John Kerr fired Whitlam, installing Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser in his place.

Years later, bitter rivals Whitlam and Fraser became friends. They found common ground on numerous issues, from the republic debate to media ownership to the arts to the sharp-right-turn both of their parties had taken in recent years. That shift was so dramatic, the former conservative Prime Minister found himself more closely aligned with the politics of not Labor, but the Greens. Try to imagine Tony Abbott endorsing a Greens candidate 30 years from now.

Perhaps the thinking is that it's only respectful to speak of someone well in the immediate aftermath of their passing.

Is it the leaders themselves who change or our perception of them? Or, free from the restraints of parliamentary rigmarole, of senate compromises, of budgetary restrictions and diplomatic custom, is it only once out of office that the leaders' real beliefs and ideals can run free and unfettered?

When Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew died on Monday, politicians former and current fell over themselves to sing his praises. Usually, the eulogies for foreign dignitaries are more qualified when the deceased presided over what is in practice a one-party system, distinguishable from a dictatorship in name only, maintained a tight censorship on the media, and kept political opponents locked up for decades. But balance that against the positives that so appealed to the ideals of Western leaders: Lee Kuan Yew was also an eloquent reformer who turned Singapore from an impoverished colonised British outpost to an independent first world economy in the space of a generation.

Little qualification was found here. The statements from Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop were, like many of their counterparts from around the world, full of praise for his achievement, silent on his failings.

Perhaps the thinking is that it's only respectful to speak of someone well in the immediate aftermath of their passing. That this is the one day where the person, not the political figure, should be free of criticism. There will be plenty of time for all that later.

But what if there isn't?

In the US, Ronald Reagan was canonised by American conservatives after he left office in a way completely removed from how he was viewed whilst in office. Those who only know of Jimmy Carter through his prolific charity work might be amazed to discover just how unpopular he was during his Presidency. So much so that he was challenged in the 1980 primaries from fellow Democrat Ted Kennedy in a way that managed to ruin both of their careers and damage the Democrats for over a decade.

(Although, seeing as we're on the topic of forgotten legacies, it's worth noting that Carter's famous "malaise" speech was not nearly as ill-received at the time as it has been remembered. Nothing symbolises this more than the fact that he never actually used the word "malaise" anywhere in the speech.)

But when it comes to modern American politics, few things compare to the Right's belief that it really liked Bill Clinton.

"You have to give Bill Clinton some credit — as he learned as Governor of Arkansas — that in a free society, you've got to find a way to work together, to listen to each other, to get things done."

That quote came from Newt Gingrich, who was attacking Obama by comparing him unfavourably to Clinton. Gingrich was Speaker of the House during Clinton's Presidency, and a massive thorn in his side: he shut down the government because Clinton made him sit at the back of Air Force One and even pushed for Clinton's impeachment. But with all of that behind them, and with both Clinton and Gingrich now considered elder statesmen of their respective parties, it's easy to forgive and forget. Particularly when there are new enemies to face.

But this is not behaviour restricted to Western politics. In fact, as Daily Show contributor Trevor Noah pointed out, it's not uncommon to go to South Africa and meet a black person named Hitler.

It's a common practice in parts of Africa to name a child after a great leader. "Great", in this case, does not mean "good". It means someone famous. Someone remembered by history. Someone who changed the world.

During World War Two, Hitler terrified many of South Africa's whites. South Africa declared itself an enemy of the axis powers, and had to fortify against Nazi forces they thought would come by sea.

To many native South Africans, this was huge. Who was this man that struck fear into the hearts of our oppressors? Who was this man who threatened the people who were on our land, who killed and terrorised us? To some, Hitler's legacy is very, very different.

And if his legacy can be remembered fondly in some quarters, then even the most reviled politician has a chance at redemption.

So what of our current crop of leaders?

It's safe to say that few, even on the Right, will remember Barack Obama's failings at President. The expansion of drone warfare and lack of openness with the media will become footnote curios, the way JFK's political missteps are now the exclusive purview of dinner party trivia. Failing a drastic event in the next eighteen months, Obama's legacy as the first black President, as an inspirational orator, as the man who killed bin Laden, as a healthcare reformer and the first President in support of gay marriage, will be secure as all the nuance is sanded off year by year.

In Australia, 21st century leaders have a real shot at fond recollection. Here are our predictions:

John Howard: Howard will gain Statesman status. No, scratch that, because he clearly has already. Economic stability is often the first and last metric used to determine success, and as the details of Children Overboard fade from memory, overtaken by the Children In Detention controversy that came later, Howard's twelve years in office may do the job itself. In the 21st century, a leader lasting more than a full term is in itself laudable.

Kevin Rudd: This one's tricky. Rarely has a leader entered office with such a heady and optimistic sense of his own ambition. He tried to do much at once, ultimately succeeding at one thing: apologising to the Stolen Generation, a moment that was both crucial and ineffective in its symbolism. But once knifed out of office, he became Machiavellian in his ambition to regain the leadership and wrest back his legacy, and he'll surely now be defined by the fact that his desire to beat his former deputy vastly outshone his desire to beat Tony Abbott in the general election. It's ripe for a Shakespearean workover.

Julia Gillard: The cosmetic victory of being the country's first female Prime Minister will, given enough time, overshadow the manner in which she got there. But will Gillard enjoy a Whitlam/Fraser-esque reassessment with enough time gone? Most likely yes. The sheer amount of legislation she managed to pass through a gridlocked Parliament was notable, though largely ignored even at the time, but this is probably what future Gillard canonisers will hang their hat on.

Tony Abbott: Far, far, too soon to say. But I wouldn't necessarily bet the farm on his personal legacy being as disastrous as his critics like to believe.

Meanwhile, as we remember Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser and the unlikely friendship that was, we continue to look back to the most divisive, partisan, turbulent time in Australian politics with a wistful nostalgia, and wonder why modern politicians can't at least try to be more like them.

Follow Lee on Twitter: @leezachariah

Image by Ben Thomson