Monday, November 26, 2007
Hair lurked in great thickets in his nostrils and sprouted wildly in his eyebrows. Only on his head did it grow more sparsely, combed over to disguise a creeping baldness.
Charisma eluded John Howard even at the height of his powers. Back then, in 1984, it seemed improbable he could ever rise to enjoy the lavish and repeated public praise of a
That was the first time I met him. He was already a formidable political figure. He had run
Howard interrupted his flow to look at me in good humor, and to grin sympathetically.
The Prime Minister of the day, the silvery, mob-beloved Bob Hawke, might have snarled or delivered a put down joke to play up to the crowd.
Howard didn’t. I sensed he was an awkward man, forgiving of awkwardness.
The natural graces of the star politician seemed beyond John Howard. In the late 1980s, I covered a speech he gave in rural
In 1993, when his career was at its lowest point, rejected by his party and apparently doomed to see out his service on the backbenches, John Howard turned up in
Howard, whose father and grandfather both fought in the trenches, was tagging along. At one point, a trail of elderly men was tottering across a road between a restaurant and their bus. Howard, instinctively helpful, respectful of elders, leapt into the road to try to manage the traffic. The French drivers ignored this nondescript man. One old soldier muttered contemptuously, “What’s he doing here?”
Two and a half years later, John Howard would be
How could the same man be those two men?
John Howard said himself the times would suit him. Australians were exasperated by the Labor Prime Minister. Paul Keating was brilliant and charismatic but never disguised his belief in his own intellectual superiority.
John Howard won the vote in 1996. Within weeks,
Howard did something conventional conservative political thought said was impossible and improper to do. He instituted gun control legislation and forced it through. Such was the fear of backlash, for a brief while he took to delivering public speeches with a bullet-proof vest beneath his suit. There has not been a large-scale shooting in
He barely survived his first electoral test, losing the popular vote but scraping back in 1998 on a narrow majority of Parliamentary seats.
His main achievements were pushing through an unpopular consumption tax and ordering a military intervention to support East Timor, after the population voted for independence from their occupiers,
However, that seemed likely to be Howard’s end. By early 2001 he was trailing so badly in the polls that only he seemed to sustain any faith in his party’s survival.
But the defining Howard years were still ahead.
Weeks from the 2001 election he seemed likely to lose, Howard tightened his line on asylum seekers trying to enter
When the crew of a Norwegian freighter, the
He sent the military, including special forces troops, to keep the
Then came 9/11.
John Howard was in
His prime ministership can ultimately be divided into two near-equal periods. Before 9/11 and after. Post 9/11, his philosophical closeness to George W. Bush gave him unprecedented access in Washington and made Australia’s voice more prominent than a nation of barely 20 million people has a right to expect.
By then the man of bristling eyebrows and nostrils, of jagged teeth and barbershop hair, had been groomed into the best possible approximation of an elder statesman. He remained personally courteous, but seemed to tolerate policies that trampled the rights and dignities of people outside his beloved “mainstream
By 2007, Australians knew John Howard intimately. They knew his tricks and the levers he pulled. The Labor Party, in the Chinese-speaking former diplomat Kevin Rudd, had at last an Opposition leader who didn’t scare school-children, who wasn’t tainted by unpleasant memories of the previous Labor government, and who seemed socially and economically disciplined. So much so that revelations of a boozed-up night at a
Howard had the chance to leave as an undefeated Prime Minister. He could have handed over to his long-time deputy and treasurer, Peter Costello. He didn’t. In fairness, he might have believed – as many of his own MPs believed – that he was the best chance his government had of re-election.
Late polls showed the opposite was true. But by then it was too late.
A friend of mine who was with the Prime Minister on Saturday November 24th at his official
That evening, the votes were counted. Howard was swept out in a landslide.
-- From Hugh Riminton, CNN International Correspondent, in
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