When the going gets tough, the ordinary Joe gets going

Sat, May 12, 2012, 01:00

THERE ARE many reasons to celebrate the election of François Hollande as president of France. He seems like a reasonable fellow. He advocates a sane class of democratic socialism. Though at home to the odd colourful romantic complication – he is French, after all – Hollande is very definitely not Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Let us also applaud his defiant (not that he has any choice in the matter) lack of charisma. Profiles of the politician generally bandy about words such as “ordinary” and “uncomplicated”.

The Washington Post put it thus: “He exudes an almost-studied lack of charisma, projecting the kind of sobriety and seriousness – blandness, even – that has earned him the nicknames of Monsieur Normal and Flanby, after an unexciting mass-produced caramel pudding.”

Hooray! The little guy won.

Hang on. That’s not right. Actually, that couldn’t be more wrong. He did, after all, defeat the microscopic Nicolas Sarkozy. Let’s just say the ordinary chap won: the pencil monitor, the chess club secretary, the chairman of the allotment committee.

It’s about time. It goes without saying that charisma has always been a driving energy in politics. Charles Stewart Parnell had it. Benjamin Disraeli had it. By all accounts, Teddy Roosevelt oozed butch magnetism from every pumping pore. But over the last 50 years the electorate has become a little too addicted to that indefinable quality.

Prof Peter Hennessy, witty expert on the innards of British politics, recently used the example of Clement Atlee to make this very point. Few now question the assertion that Atlee was the greatest Labour prime minister.

But, as Hennessy explained, the mousy, media-hostile politician would now struggle to secure the Labour candidature even in a safe Tory seat. The party doesn’t even want such men as cannon fodder.

For many the tipping point in British politics came with the death of John Smith, sensible leader of the Labour Party, in 1994. Most analysts believed that Gordon Brown would take over guardianship of the people’s party. But Peter Mandelson and his shrouded coterie had other ideas. Tony Blair was slicker, sleeker and less prickly. He didn’t have a wonky eye. He could talk without ramming his tongue psychotically into a twitching cheek. That’s what we want from a politician: surface gloss.

Political leaders have gotten younger, friendlier and better looking. The oleaginous David Cameron was just 44 when he assumed office. Blair was 43. If the British skip any more generations they’ll end up electing a prime minister who is not yet able to vote.

In times past American voters rather expected their presidents to come across like responsible grandfathers. John McCain could have worn that cardigan comfortably. But in 2008 the electorate wanted – among other things – somebody who looked like they knew their way round an iPhone and could tell Jay-Z from Jay Leno.

The time has come to retire that old saw about politics being show business for ugly people. Ugly people don’t play on primetime.

Now, it should be cautiously acknowledged that certain countries – this one, for example – have resisted the addiction to charisma. Enda Kenny may have many admirable qualities, but even his best friends would admit that he is rarely confused with the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Bertie Ahern traded upon his ordinary Joe status. You will crawl through the names of late 20th-century taoisigh without finding yourself dazzled by reflected glamour. The closest we had to a star was Charlie Haughey. But his class of charisma was… well, we don’t wish to speak ill of the dead. So we’ll just note that Bela Lugosi was eerily charming when playing Dracula and move on to other things.

We should congratulate ourselves. The substitution of style for substance in political affairs speaks of a depressing collective immaturity. Turn to the United Kingdom again. Boris Johnson, recently re-elected as mayor of London, won over swing voters by sustaining a convincing impersonation of Bungle, the foolish bear from the children’s programme Rainbow.

Ed Miliband, another teenage leader, keeps saying what the public want to hear, but remains unelectable because he comes across like a nasal swot.

Yet there are signs that, as the economic crisis swells, the public may be slowly realising that surface glamour is a luxury they cannot afford. After a catastrophic dalliance with malign charisma in the middle of the last century, our pragmatic friends in Germany quickly dismissed any such frippery and turned to such solid, unromantic figures as Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel. The untouchably heroic Willy Brandt would never have got past the selection committees so abhorred by Prof Hennessy.

Now even the suave French seem to have embraced ordinariness.

There are dangers. Fear of economic calamity has propelled some European states towards rule by faceless, indistinct technocrats. Nobody wants his or her country to be represented by a middle-managing jobsworth. But we are better off with the likes of Flanby than the latest political pop star. It’s time to grow up.

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