Good political biographies usually sell well because voters are very interested in the character of their politicians. That's character in both the narrow and the wide sense, though only rarely does it successfully embrace psychoanalysis.
Knowing something about the family, the background, the education and the experiences of politicians helps define who they are and who, perhaps, they would like to be, why some issues and some attitudes resonate with them and others do not, and why, at particular crisis points of their lives they have responded as they did. With differing degrees of time, distance and objectivity, biography can also test the difference between the politician's version of herself (or the spin doctor's) with the same story as seen by others, or even unvarnished fact. The contrast can be embarrassing, but can also help the outsider see or understand the politician in context.
If the politician is still in the business, biography may also help predict how they will respond to future crises, the set of values they will apply to their personal and political actions, the calm, and the judgment, they can bring to changing events, the temperament with which they will deal with family, friends, colleagues, enemies and new things. A reverse telescope is by no means the only way of seeing and judging politicians, but most of those who have seen politicians close up would agree that one can see in the words and the actions of the person exercising power many things that might have been predicted from the background and history, and their experiences as they climbed up the greasy pole.
One of the greatest modern political biographers is Robert Caro, who has spent half of his life writing of the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and who has only now, with the recent issue of volume four, reached the time when vice-president LBJ suddenly became president on the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. That volume deals only with the next 100 days or so; Caro is promising (though I do not have my hopes up) that his next volume (due, I guess five years hence) will complete his presidency (in early 1969) and his last years (until 1973).
LBJ had a colourful history, exercising great power in the Senate years before he became an impotent and fawning vice-president. He had great strengths and great weaknesses, a very good capacity to judge others (if, sometimes, strong insecurity and lack of will and self-confidence). Usually simultaneously appealing and appalling, he was, perhaps, the most effective, but far from the most inspirational, politician of the American post-war period.
It is of the essence of the biography, and its unbelievable weighing of thousands of interviews and millions of words, that Caro believes that power reveals. LBJ often hid or concealed both good and bad parts of his character, but, once comfortably in power (particularly after he had shucked some of the weight of the lost-cause legend of Kennedy), one probably saw more of the real Johnson, good or bad, than had ever before been on public display.
This week has seen the publication of a Quarterly Essay piece about Tony Abbott, one in which journalist David Marr seeks to locate the ''real Tony'' in firm Catholic beliefs, activism as a young acolyte of B. A. Santamaria in the late 1970s, and his mastery of a style of ruthless wrecking politics inculcated by years of experience in working in minority causes. The last bit of it might be summed up by the motto that ''if you don't have the numbers, disrupt the meeting and make it impossible for the other side to exercise their majority powers''.
There are truths in all that, though a cynic might observe that the background of many who have flourished in Labor politics has not been that much different, right up to the alleged hints of violence in intense student politics. Student politics are always bitter; it is, some say, because so little is at stake.
Marr also sees a tension between that part of Abbott who might have been a priest, a preacher, a moral leader and a paragon, and that worldly part of him which has also wanted power, to be prime minister, and who knows, or fears, that the people will not accept him as he really is, so that he has to be someone else. That someone else is essentially more moderate, less bruising and less moralistic, and even if it is not a someone who will repudiate his core beliefs, it is someone who will not push them.
Abbott, Marr says, has had amazing self-discipline in the three years he has
been Opposition Leader. His worldly ambition has triumphed over any sense of evangelic mission. If this is true, the tension in the Abbott clock is now that restrained spring.
Marr is a person unlikely to feel much empathy or political solidarity with Abbott, but those who would discount his judgments merely on that account miss the fact that Marr, even as a reporter or biographer with a point of view, is unusually sharp-eyed and fair-minded. His judgments are, like everything put in the public square, contestable, perhaps wrong, but Marr is neither simply doing an axe-job, nor being two-dimensional in his portrait. While Abbott is now wondering aloud about the ''agenda'' of those bringing up matters raised in the essay, he cooperated with Marr and gave him a lengthy, if off-the-record, interview.
Many of the audience will, of course, read the essay only for confirmation of their existing prejudices, for or against Abbott (and, perhaps Marr). It did not contain any factual material that people who watch politics did not know, and, if the picture of Abbott was well-drawn, it was of a fairly familiar face. The risk, for those who will want to see it as a bill of indictment against someone they already dislike, is, indeed, that one might like him more, whether for that part of Abbott which is fun, self-deprecating, and mischievous, or simply because he is intrinsically a much more interesting character than many of his rivals, whether in his own party or in Labor. Abbott polarises - but he has friends, and followers, as well as enemies. Many others, on his side or the other, could never inspire a following.
The biographies of a good many Labor ministers, for example, would be interesting primarily for demonstrating that they have little in the way of interesting history, background experiences or time of struggle, but have instead risen without trace after having lived cosseted lives directly inside the labour movement, or among labour's camp followers. All the more pitiful are such biographies if one counts in the significance of pedigree and patronage, and corruption by numbers manipulation. A triumph of branch stacking is hardly the same as winning a battle - any battle - of ideas. Many modern politicians have had little ''life experience'' outside their political movement, and often having worked only in the offices of other politicians, or in trade unions, party organisations or business lobbies, serving apprenticeships for access to and exercise of power, without any immersion in the wider world where live the people on whose behalf power is exercised.
Such suits can parrot, unconvincingly, any number of slogans field-tested among focus groups about how and why they are in politics ''to make a difference'', but show little empathy with or understanding of voters and their problems, or real commitment to or belief in any cause, even the fashionable or, depending on the company, politically correct.
That so many have similar backgrounds may help them talk to each other in shorthand, but hardly improves their feel for wider arguments and perspectives. And, alas, many of the women are from the same barrel: Australia has moved from a day when difference in gender promised of itself new insight.
If power reveals, as Caro suggests, it often discloses that a good number of people we put into power have had much more hunger to have that power than idea of what to do with it, once achieved.
This is not shown only by incompetence. It can be demonstrated by simply occupying a post and managing - perhaps competently if with little long-term policy, galvanising energy or sense of direction or mission.
Examples might be odious, but if one looked at current federal portfolios it would be hard to see much in the way of an agenda, let alone a Labor agenda, at work in Attorney-Generals, in Foreign Affairs and Trade, in Innovation, in Immigration, in Agriculture, in Communications, in Resources and Energy, or in Finance. This is not to deny the appearance of ministers beavering away, the odd ''initiative'' or panicked response to events not under control. It is to say that very little appears to be going on as part of a conscious and determined exercise of the will of cabinet, or Parliament.
And that's quite apart from the failures of a host of ministers, such as those in health, education, and indigenous affairs, to convincingly explain and sell what they are doing, or to outline either how their ''reforms'' actually change anything much or fit into a broader philosophy of the government. It is also hard to see how any of these ministers could have been said to have made, or be making, a difference to anything.
With such a cast of essentially uninteresting characters, it might be natural to yearn for a politician who believes in something - indeed who believes in anything at all. Yet, much as I yearn for some excitement, and some leader to get excited about, I am not entirely sure that being interesting, or being a character, is enough. We want character all right, but that is not the same. Australians generally show that they know the difference, and when a person is not who he or she pretends to be.