Wendy Wedge is a big fan of Don Watson’s book on Paul Keating and uses it to explore some parallels between John Howard and Richard Nixon.

Now Watson is no simple bleeding heart. Probably influenced by his wife’s experiences at the Arts Council he’s not too keen on arts bureaucrats and excoriates the arts luvvies for their monumental short-sightedness and self-absorption. Being a boy from the Gippsland backblocks he’s also not too keen on greens and equally excoriates Brown, Caswell, Garrett and others for ingratitude and general political stupidity.

But he does raise some interesting questions about John which, taken in context, with other elements of his career, make you wonder whether Howard is in fact superior to Wendy’s other hero, Richard Nixon, rather than just up there.

You see Dick just kept getting caught. The journo Frank Mankiewicz once wrote a great book about Dick called Nixon’s Road to Watergate. Basically he pointed out two things: Dick was perfectly consistent in everything he did from his character assassinations of Representative Voorhis and Senator Helen Gahagan Douglas through the Checkers speech to his Watergate high crimes and misdemeanours.

Dick’s greatness was his capacity to survive, bounce back and re-invent himself even after his defeats in the Presidency, California gubernatorial race and post-Watergate resignation.

Now John Howard has got that same quality, as anyone foolish enough to believe that he’ll quietly go soon after his 64th birthday, will discover.

But what makes Howard greater than Nixon is that he simply never gets caught.

Which brings us back to Watson.

Watson bemoans the fact that in the lead up to the landslide the gallery didn’t put Howard under any scrutiny about his past (not that it would have made any difference to the result) but then that’s what you expect of bleeding hearts blaming Packer and Jones. The real problem, as Watson himself describes it, was simpler: “our opponents had a cunning, lower middle class character from Balzac or Dickens; we had an escapee from a novel by Garcia Marquez, a character from Macondo.”

Personally Wendy would always bet on the first rather than the second because it’s now about “whatever it takes” rather than magical realism.

While Watson probably thinks “cunning, lower middle class” is about as low as you can go it’s actually what makes Howard great he’s your typical Australian.

And, as we said, he’s also adept at the old Australian standby of “getting away with it”.

For instance, Watson takes some time to recount the Ian McLachlan fiasco over the Hindmarsh bridge documents. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the issue it’s simply not a good idea to get hold of original copies of Ministerial correspondence and then circulate them without being bloody sure you don’t get rumbled. McLachlan played his politics like he played his cricket strong on the front and back foot in the arc between mid on and mid off but not too subtle elsewhere. Lots of straight drives but not too many edges, nudges and cuts so getting rumbled was probably inevitable.

The Hindmarsh letters thing was, therefore, out of character. He didn’t act in his usual gentlemanly and honourable way although he did do the honourable thing and fall on his sword. Keating was overseas in Germany with Chancellor Kohl and never got back in time to take up the real issue what was McLachlan doing circulating the stuff and did John Howard know?

Now doesn’t that sound familiar? The well-known control freak who controls everything about the Government now and the Opposition then, simply didn’t know about it.or simply didn’t get caught?

It’s too much of a coincidence possibly but just think for a moment about other recent issues: Heffernan and Kirby; the children overboard; the totally untrue Keating smear campaigns about Tozer and Holmes a Court.

It’s remarkable about how they all share the same pattern: the odd bit of dirty work which, if uncovered, is either totally deniable or almost totally untraceable.

Poor old Dick never got that deniability and traceability bits right.

So, incident after incident with broadly the same modus operandi and virtually the same management strategy if it goes wrong. Fortunately there are no Mankiewiczs in the gallery to bring it all together in an old fashioned bit of investigative journalism.

But even if there were, Wendy would still bet that her hero would get away with it with a magnificent diversion or by turning the tables and accusing the accuser of conspiratorial gutter politics.

Peter Fray

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