The new global model for political deportment is rolling through Europe this week. He met the Russian leaders before heading for Italy and the G8 summit. Quite separate from his politics or policies, the new global model for political deportment continues to reinforce the idea that effective political leadership does not have to be predicated on the old bag of tricks of gimmickry, populism, sound bites and trickery.
There isn’t much dignity left in the higher reaches of political life, a point beautifully made this week in an essay by David Brooks in The New York Times. The “dignity code”, as Brooks calls it, has been “completely obliterated” by the pressures of modern life.
The costs of its demise are there for all to see. Every week there are new scandals featuring people who simply do not know how to act. For example, during the first few weeks of summer, three stories have dominated public conversation, and each one exemplifies another branch of indignity.
First, there was Mark Sanford’s press conference. Here was a guy utterly lacking in any sense of reticence, who was given to rambling self-exposure even in his moment of disgrace. Then there was the death of Michael Jackson and the discussion of his life. Here was a guy who was apparently untouched by any pressure to live according to the rules and restraints of adulthood. Then there was Sarah Palin’s press conference. Here was a woman who aspires to a high public role but is unfamiliar with the traits of equipoise and constancy, which are the sources of authority and trust.
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But dignity in politics is not completely lost, says Brooks, for one simple reason: Barack Obama.
Whatever policy differences people may have with him, we can all agree that he exemplifies reticence, dispassion and the other traits associated with dignity. The cultural effects of his presidency are not yet clear, but they may surpass his policy impact. He may revitalise the concept of dignity for a new generation and embody a new set of rules for self-mastery.
Which makes you wonder why someone as intelligent as Malcolm Turnbull spends his life at the top of Australian politics rolling out “debt trucks”, fake emails and populist sound bites when — as one of the few genuinely thoughtful and articulate politicians around — he could follow the new global model for political deportment and be himself.