Bassett: politics, partners and Pope

Historian Michael Bassett lives in the past.

Discussing his new biographical memoir, Working With David, he's sitting in an armchair in the corner of his Mt Albert home's living room where he helped his cousin, future prime minister David Lange, write his selection speech to be Labour's candidate in the 1977 Mangere by-election.

His words flicker between the past and the present tense: "Lange had problems" on sentence; "The problem with David is" the next.

"I decided if I got into cabinet I would record it all," he says of the book's genesis, which is really the beginning of Bassett's political career.

"In the end I came to be regarded as the person to whom you gave documents."

Certain people have been waiting for the book, he says, for 20 years - and that's why the reaction to some of the early press was so vituperative.

"The Beehive was scared of the book for a long time. There's a well-understood method of dealing with news you don't like if you're a Beehive insider, and that is you just pour the poison on the person rather than dealing with the argument."

He says Minister of Social Development Ruth Dyson, "operates the poison tree: it's a kind of email tree. I intercepted one [letter] last year quite by accident. She is the principal poison distributor."

"They're all popping up - I saw a letter in the Sunday Star-Times from Geoff Saunders, who just happens to be the brother-in-law of Jenny Kirk, the former member for Birkenhead. There was a woman from Grafton saying I was a misogynist; she's been on the letter-writing tree for years. I have a list of them, just to keep an eye out, and it's all predictable."

The "misogynist" accusations refer to claims in the book that Lange's relationship with speechwriter Margaret Pope, later his partner and then wife, was a factor in Lange turning his back on the "Rogernomics" programme of economic reform. After all, Dr Bassett points out, the government had been re-elected in 1987 precisely on a promise of "finishing the job."

Drawing Pope as a political influence, rather than as a footnoted personal distraction on Lange's attention, drew a withering response from some of Bassett's detractors. Left-ish commentator Russell Bown wrote before the release that "the book is likely to be objectionable in any number of ways, but Bassett's casting of Margaret Pope as the Yoko Ono of the fourth Labour government - she broke up the band - likely comes top of the list."

In those criticisms, though - and Pope's statements about Lange "standing up to those people by himself" - they are guilty of the same sin which they accuse Bassett: discounting the essential humanity of Lange.

Just as surely, they underestimate the influence of other halves in general in New Zealand political life.

"Partners are very important in politics," Bassett says. "I think Joan Bolger was very important to Jim. Not only supportive of her husband, but I also got the idea they were very closely in touch. It was certainly true for me as a politician - I used to call my wife at least twice a day - and certainly true for others. Jenny and Burton Shipley, you could only put a cigarette paper between those two. Moore and Palmer were both certainly very close to their wives."

"Less so for David," he says. "I don't think he took any political advice from Naomi. But then she was pretty well preoccupied with the kids, who were slightly younger than our kids at the time."

Lange met his first wife Naomi in 1967. In the book she's described as "neat and tidy, though not glamorous." She was also, on her initial date with the 25-year-old Lange only three months before they were engaged, his first girlfriend.

Bassett himself won't speculate too far on Lange's first marriage, probably out of deference to Naomi, who was a "frequent visitor" to the home we're holding the interview in with Lange.

But imagining for a second that the comfortable sofa in Mt Albert is a psychoanalyst's chair, Bassett's description of the first Prime Minister he served under, Norman Kirk, seems to have unmistakable echoes in Lange's life.

"Norman Kirk wasn't close to his wife," he muses, "Partly because, and I kind of hint at it in the entry in the dictionary of biography, Norman keeps growing all the time. He becomes mayor of Kaiapoi, he gets interested in local government, he's reading widely, whereas I don't think his wife was - and really in a way the partners grew apart, as sometimes happens."

The technocrats in Labour's caucus hadn't immediately understood why Pope was the first person appointed to Lange's office when he became prime minister. Bassett had been on the committee which earlier hired her for the Labour Party's research unit in opposition, and he says she was "not the most impressive" candidate. Pope was given a part-time position, while two others received fulltime jobs. Nonetheless, she quickly became close to Lange.

"It wasn't long before I realized Lange had clicked with her, and she worked more and more with his side of things. I said to Lange, what do you see in her? And he made this marvelous comment - 'She thinks like me.'"

He looks incredulous even now.

"I sort of laughed because I didn't know anybody in the world - and still don't - who thought like David. I mean, after they invented David the mold was destroyed. She thought like him? Give me a break. I told someone who was close to me that this is what he had said, this was 1983, and she paused - and said 'Hmm. That's code for meaning he's in love with her.'"

That's why Bassett objects to the idea that Lange was, or comes across as, an empty vessel that could be simply filled up by others.

"That kind of description doesn't allow for the humanness of the problem of the guy," he says.

"It comes up in so many ways; it comes out in an unwillingness or inability, I'm not sure which, to concentrate on the big issues. He just doesn't feel well, is the short answer, and he wants to escape a lot.

"By the middle or the later part of November 1987," he recalls, "Lange was the only one in the whole of the caucus who had not had a proper briefing on the state of the economy after the stock market crash. In retrospect I think it's illness. And I think it's coupled with the fact that he doesn't know how he's going to resolve his personal life either."

This is ultimately the harshest judgment levelled on Lange by a work that's not just concerned with Lange, or Bassett or even the role of politics in history - but with the place of history in politics.

Lange eschewed biographies and histories, but was surrounded by those - Mike Moore, Helen Clark, Stan Rodger - who were steeped in politics' creation stories.

"When Muldoon closed Parliament, and called the election on June 14, 1984, Lange was in his hotel room reading Ian Cochrane's The Slipstream, an Irish story about a group of men who steal money from a church donations box. It was exactly the kind of tale he loved."

"I was down in the basement working on my political biography entry. I suspect other people were working on more serious things. Lange was away on this jolly exercise.

"It made him a loveable individual, made him enormously sensitive to human frailties, wonderful at flinging off a barb, but it didn't give him what I think serious politicians need to have, which is a fairly basic grounding in political history."

Even as history unfolded daily around him, Lange remained unconcerned about, or oblivious to, his place in it.

"The one thing I can be absolutely sure about David is that long before he became prime minister he hadn't read Gustafson's biography of Mickey Savage, Gustafson's Labour's Road to Independence, Bruce Brown's history of the Labour Party - he didn't know the Labour Party's folklore in the way Stan, and Mike, and me, and Helen and others" - and, surely, Margaret Pope - "did. And I think he was probably the poorer for that - his judgment was the poorer for it."

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