The portrait of former Labor Leader Mark Latham as deluded, narcissistic vengeful and brilliant, simply makes him much more honest and fascinating than most of his erstwhile political colleagues.

Latham’s former Chief of Staff Mike Richards says of Latham that he exhibited a “narcissistic and paranoid personality shaped a consistent pattern of political behaviour. The core features of that style are a distinctive political brilliance and drive that is accompanied by paranoia and destructive tendencies — anger, rage, envy and resentment — which suggest an inner dynamic involving overweening ambition defending against (that is, compensating for) low self-esteem.”

Richards goes so far as to compare Latham to the most interesting and Shakespearean of modern American Presidents, Richard Nixon. If that is right, expect more writing about Latham than cardboard and mono dimensional characters like Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard. Nixon, because of his complex and tragic psychological makeup, attracts the attention of scholars, writers and journalists even today, getting on for 20 years after his death.

But before we get carried away with Richards’ take on Latham, let’s bear this in mind — he is not unique. Yes, the personality might be exaggerated, but the level of narcissism, ego, paranoia and delusion in politics is seriously high.

Not all politicians are like this, but it has to be said that the way in which politicians lack empathy for colleagues in trouble is simply extraordinary. I have seen at close hand over the past decade or so the reaction of politicians when one of their colleagues seeks to self harm, or crashes psychologically. There is a fleeting sense of shock and maybe even sympathy for the colleague’s sense of despair that has driven him or her to self-harm or be admitted to hospital, but then the caravan moves on.

If you ask politicians who have been in this space how many of their colleagues regularly stay in touch with them and visit them after their meltdown, the answer is depressing. Few, if any, do the right thing. They are simply not concerned about their colleague who falls.

Why? Because political life is uber competitive, childish and all about controlling yourself and others. The obsession with following the script, pretending that you and your colleagues are one big happy team always and everywhere, and glad handing people and interest groups day in and day out with a constant stream of platitudes and arguments that you know to be intellectually dishonest, takes a special type of personality.

A personality that is not particularly reflective, that is malleable and chameleon like makes for a successful politician in the modern world of sound bites and image consultants. At least Mark Latham was raw, honest and unplugged. And he had some original ideas, and a nice line in excoriating the Howard government’s sycophancy to the Bush Administration.

I’d rather have Latham any day over the boring shallow personality types that populate every nook and cranny of Canberra today. Or let’s put it this way: you can’t imagine that a psychological analysis of Peter Costello, Kevin Rudd or Joe Hockey would be as complex or layered — they are not personalities that are particularly interesting, that’s why.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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