Political Biography

Bob Hawke by Robert Pullan & Hawke by John Hurst

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October 1980, no. 25

Success may not always have come easy to Robert James Lee Hawke, but it has come often. In 1969 he became President of the ACTU without ever having been a shop steward or a union organiser or secretary; he had never taken part in or led a strike. His experience at grass roots or branch level in the ALP had not been extensive when he was elected Federal President of the party in 1973. Now, untested in parliament and government, his jaw is firmly pointed towards achieving what has always been his ultimate ambition – the prime ministership.

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Curators at old Parliament House – now known as the Museum for Australian Democracy – have for many years maintained the prime minister’s suite much as it was when Bob Hawke vacated it in 1988. Visitors can gaze at a reproduction of the Arthur Boyd painting that hung opposite Hawke’s desk, gawk at the enormous, faux-timber panelled telephone Hawke used, and cast a wry eye over the prime ministerial bathroom, where curators have laid on the vanity toiletries and accoutrements belonging to the office’s last occupant: a box of contact lenses, a pair of black shoelaces, and a tube of hair dye.

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Landslide by Michael Wolff & Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

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January–February 2022, no. 439

The Trump presidency (2017–21) has generated more books across its four years than most presidencies have across eight. It is ironic that an avowedly anti-intellectual president, who advertises his dislike of reading, has had such a profound impact on political literature. These two books – Landslide and Peril – will likely remain the most read of that growing collection. As their titles suggest, each is a chronicle of the chaos that consumed the United States during and after the 2020 election campaign.

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Scott Morrison has now been prime minister longer than any of his four predecessors: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, or Malcolm Turnbull. He has won one election by the skin of his teeth and faces another by May next year. So what sort of man is he and how good a prime minister? These three publications give us slightly different takes on these questions.

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Contemporary Australian parliamentarians tend to be focused firmly on the present. Speechwriters may liberally sprinkle the speeches of politicians with references to a political party’s golden past, but an MP’s sincerest interest in history often emerges when he or she gets around to publishing a memoir of their time in office. A politician’s autobiography is an exercise that encourages selective, rather than frank, reflection on how history will portray them, their enemies and friends. Some politicians, thankfully, embrace a broader, less self-interested view of the importance of history. Labor Opposition frontbencher Chris Bowen is the latest serving politician to display a commendable fascination with historical research. His new book tells the stories of six relatively forgotten figures who made a strong contribution to the Australian Labor Party.

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Queensland MP Charles Porter’s book, The ‘Gut Feeling’ (1981), relates the story of former prime minister Billy Hughes being pressed in the 1940s to pass judgement on a Liberal Federal Council statement on an industrial issue. ‘No bloody good,’ he pronounced. ‘Not sufficiently ambiguous!’ If, as Hughes implied, ambiguity is a key virtue needed for political survival, then by 2001 the Howard Liberal–National Party Government appeared to have embraced it. Indeed, any objective analysis of the Howard era is fraught with difficulties because of these two factors: the verbal, unrecorded nature of some political incidents, and the emotive left-versus-right culture war that marked John Howard’s prime ministership (1996–2007).

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Every biographer has a relationship with their subject, even if they have passed away. A real advantage for biographers of the dead is that the subject cannot say what they think about the book. The relationship between Margaret Simons and Penny Wong was fraught. That this mattered is evident from the opening sentence: ‘Penny Wong did not want this book to be written.’ Simons, a journalist, biographer, and associate professor at Monash University, uses her preface to complain about how difficult it was researching the book without Wong’s assistance and against her will. 

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt is consistently ranked alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as one of the greatest presidents of the United States. His greatness rests on two pillars. Elected in the midst of the Great Depression, he permanently changed how Americans viewed government: as a force that would ...

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Richard Nixon remains one of America’s most intriguing presidents (1969–74). Intelligent, shrewd, and possessing a keen sense of the public mood, Nixon represented the ideal presidential model. His grasp of foreign policy has been unmatched by his successors, and his domestic policies represented the last hurrah of ‘New Deal'...

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The president of the United States looms large in contemporary politics, a powerful figure dominating news and popular culture: from newly elected president Donald Trump bestriding (or, depending on your political leanings, besmirching) the world stage, to Kevin Spacey as the Machiavellian Frank Underwood in House of Cards. For the modern observer, it is di ...

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