For those who have had a gutful of political fakery and flim-flam, Abraham Lincoln has the answer. With a mind and heart untroubled by vanity, Lincoln reckoned that the Lord must prefer ordinary-looking people, because he made so many of us. "Ordinary-looking", though, is not usually included among the selection criteria we set for putative leaders.
There we are on the wrong track. Tagging someone as ordinary does not amount to dismissing them as mediocre or banal. Ordinary connotes normal, and normalcy – itself synonymous with steadiness, grit and resilience – that is what we need.
Take Angela Merkel. Punctiliously dowdy, relentlessly unexciting, a specialist in a discipline as arcane as quantum chemistry, but Chancellor of Germany for 14 years and counting. She has even anointed a successor and given her an apprenticeship. As Germans might say, Merkel embodies "das Ding an sich" – the thing in itself, authenticity and substance. Merkel sets the gold standard for not just economic, financial and political stability, but for personal normalcy, too. To be fair, Theresa May surely deserves an honourable mention for her stubborn, dogged, well-mannered advocacy of a lost cause.
Anyone who would not swap their national leader for another Merkel should consider two illustrations of political normalcy drawn from history. During World War II, John Curtin (as Australian prime minister) and Clem Attlee (as Britain's deputy prime minister) literally had greatness thrust upon them. To borrow a public service phrase, both lacked relevant qualifications and experience. Curtin, for example, was a recovering alcoholic elected to his party leadership by one vote; a man who suffered from nerves, chills, a fear of flying and a lethally weak heart. Attlee started out managing a charity club for working-class boys, then travelled around on a bicycle explaining national insurance in rural townships.
Curtin and Attlee were underestimated, undermined and undersold. Both displayed all the pure assets of normalcy: they were calm, judicious, modest, methodical, unbluffed and unfussed by their responsibilities. Both embraced and fulfilled that greatness thrust upon them. Unlike his boss, Winston Churchill, Attlee did not waste time during the war berating, deprecating and over-ruling Curtin.
Conversely, to make an obvious but obviously important point, we should shun any candidate for leadership who wants to be someone rather than do something. We are right to worry about politicians (like French President Emmanuel Macron) who allegedly go through $US30,000 on make-up in three months or who (like Macron's predecessor, Francois Hollande) are said to spend $US132,000 in a year tending their sparse hair.
Shifting continents, we might beware of politicians who condemn many opposition supporters as "a basket of deplorables" (Hillary Clinton) or who judge inflation by rises in the price of arugula at a fancy supermarket (Barack Obama).
As a general rule, vanity is hard to hide. Often, the inveterately vain do not want to hide their opinion of themselves at all. The platonic form of such political vanity might still be the African leader who issued a video of his deeds under the title A Man After God's Own Heart.
Where, then, might we unearth another Merkel? We could start by asking our prospective leaders a few simple questions; a few pub tests, if you like. Here are six options.
- Who plays centre half-back in the footy team you pretend to support?
- Can you name five types of gum tree? (After all, there are supposed to be about 700.)
- What is your most serious weakness?
- Can you make your kids' breakfasts?
- When did you last gather all your family together for a meal?
- How much does it cost to fly from where you live to Canberra?
Those questions would suss out shamming just as reliably as watching how a politician ate a sausage sandwich or drank a schooner of beer.
For those who passed, we could set tougher tests again. Politicians might be invited to sign up to a strict two-goes-only term limit. That would help engender commitment, ensure turnover, even curb politicians' egos. If a candidate's only work experience was as a political staff member, she might be required to manage something in the real world before running for election. If those in the field parroted any tropes, tics or tricks from Trump's campaign, they should be disqualified.
You would suspect that "ordinary-looking" candidates would jump those hurdles more easily than anyone attaching adjectives like "visionary", "game-changing" or "dynamic" to their persons.
As for more formal training, Australian ministers have sometimes seemed to be just who they used to be in their previous jobs. A few teachers have presumed that didactic repetition of a point can persuade people. Some lawyers have argued a brief, without connecting that matter to any larger public concerns or developing any sense of empathy themselves. A number of farmers have regarded themselves as the custodians of true national values, as exemplified on their paddocks and in the sweat of their brows.
To be a minister, you might well serve an apprenticeship in financial numeracy and economic literacy, spend a bit of time serving actual clients across a counter, or take on a few hours of taxing charity work.
The net result might be not politicians who are exactly like us, or even ones who like us much, but rather folk more prepared to stick up for "ordinary-looking" voters. A "greater and graver responsibility" (a Curtin phrase) would be difficult to find.
Returning to one bloke exemplifying the virtues of "ordinary-looking" leaders, we could give the last word to Clem Attlee, who summed up his career thus:
There were few who thought him a starter,
Many who thought themselves smarter,
But he ended PM
CH and OM
An earl and a knight of the garter.
Mark Thomas is a Canberra-based writer.