Diary of a Foreign Minister by BOB CARR, NEWSOUTH, $49.99

Former foreign minister Bob Carr at the launch of his memoir.

Former foreign minister Bob Carr at the launch of his memoir. Photo: Peter Rae

Gore Vidal ran for the Senate in California in 1982, and if, in a parallel universe, his cousin Al Gore made him, as he might have, secretary of state, he might have written a book like this one, by his friend and admirer Bob Carr.

It has the same rush of ideas, the same hurtling through landscapes and epochs, the same clear tone - reflective, mutinous, ardent, calm - as in Burr or Empire, the same searching clarity and cool, sardonic phrasing (he says of dropping in on a Francis Bacon exhibition, ''enough time to sicken of the acres of belly and parted groins''), the same impelled questioning (''Is this history? Is everything?''), a similar cast of characters, even (Kissinger, Stoppard, the Clintons, the groundhog Zionists, the smiling ghost of Honest Abe), as the high Lord of Ravello's, the same avid, amused, imperious gloom …

Like Hamlet, he asks us, the audience, what he should do now? How tactfully should he treat the Sri Lankan tyrant, how obeisantly the Indian hero-president, how much slack he should cut the Fijian buffoons, now making democratic noises? His awe at the strutting blowhard Netanyahu (wrong in all things, but impressive nonetheless) is palpable. Like the Archangel Gabriel or an Ian McEwan character, he soars above the planet, looking down. How to fix this? How to sleep? How to think while exhausted in a one-to-one that may alter the world? How many Normison to take tonight?

<i>Diary of a Foreign Minister</i>, by Bob Carr.

Diary of a Foreign Minister, by Bob Carr.

Wrecked, and home again, and confused in his memories (was that indeed Ahmadinejad? What did he say to him?), he swims at sunset in Maroubra, the sewer-smelling homeland he never left, listens to McKellen reading The Odyssey, watches a film on Louis XIV, reads Cicero's On the Nature of Gods, ignores Christmas, attends the gym, bends his limbs into floods of pain, admires at Kirribilli the prime minister's complexion, her untiring cheerfulness, her organised mind, wishes he could save her, but the polls are worse now, and he must save himself, lest Rudd, returning, sack him, his supplanter, from the job they both adore …

There has not been a book like this, unless you count the novels of Ward Just, the series House of Cards or The West Wing, or … Barack Obama's second memoir, The Audacity of Hope. Carr admires Obama's oral craft (reprinting one brilliant, cliff-straddling speech word for word), but he prefers in the end his fellow travellers the Clintons to that ''fairytale'' of a rainbow America that will not, he knows, prevail, nor long endure.

Inevitably, the question arises, might he be prime minister himself? Beazley says he might, as Senator Gorton was, and the numbers could be herded squabbling behind him. This well might be; but no, as he told me, he would have had at best nine months he would rather expend overflying, and bullying, the world; and besides … this was not his mob, his comrade circle, his ''better angels'', there was a world elsewhere. Like Evatt, he juggles two lives - Delphic, global; local, grimy - and he, like the doc, chooses high-strutting denial. As would we all.

Morbidly, he watches his 15 minutes fleet by. He attends the Bohemian Grove, a camp in a valley of redwoods where Kissinger (less Strangelove now, more Metternich, in these, his early 90s) coins phrases, and capitalists conspire, and the food is excellent. He springs Melinda Taylor from her Libyan prison. He curses, with emphasis, Assange. He supports, with caveats, Morsi. He abominates Assad, but wants to bribe him into exile, and save 100,000 lives. He returns after 40 years to New Guinea, in love again with the landscape, the costuming. He sits for an hour on a plane beside William Hague, who, like him, wrote books while awaiting, in exile, his moment.

He adores Oman. He fears he is ''turning Arabist''. He hates the airline food. He strips the bread off sandwiches and wolfs, in carnivore frenzy, double servings of meat. Like Scarlett O'Hara, he will never go hungry again. He wrenches himself, through pain and sleeplessness, down his long and winding road to the goal, as always unattainable, of a slightly better world - less slavery, less murder, less torture, more food in the bellies of children.

He bullies and bribes a swag of tiny sea-girt nations into uplifting us onto the Security Council. He nearly brings Gillard down by making her vote with justice for Palestinian advancement, and slap on the wrist the marauding Israeli ''settlers''. He could (perhaps) have walked out of that meeting prime minister; and he did not.

Like other writer-politicians - Churchill, Snow, Hurd, Foot, Jenkins, Disraeli, Macaulay, Adams, Mitterrand, Mao - he seizes the hour, the day, and tells how it was in his time to be in the room, in the moment.

He stands high in their company. And this is praise indeed.

Bob Ellis is a diarist, filmmaker and former Carr speechwriter.