Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart

Published Courier-Mail, 8 June, 2002

In 1992 Paul Keating attended the Australian Book Fair annual dinner, sharing the stage with British writer and barrister, John Mortimer, and the winners of various National Book Council and Australian Book Publishers Association prizes.

Sitting at the official table he seemed uncomfortable and uncommunicative. The only animation he showed was in answer to a question about Sydney bookseller and old Trotskyite, Bob Gould. Keating’s eyes lit up, he smiled and then told some brief anecdotes about “giving Bob a touch up” at ALP conferences.

Then Keating got up to speak. He didn’t read it very well but the speech covered issues of Australian identity, the republic and our place in the world which had the audience cheering wildly, jumping to their feet to applaud and even shedding tears.

Keating came back to the table with a bemused look on his face as if surprised by the fuss and the response. The next day the speech was on the front page of most of Australia’s newspapers.

At the time, and for years after, I was puzzled by the night never coming to grips with the Keating complexities. Seemingly averse to traditional political small talk and almost humble yet ruthless in memory of political battles and inspirational intellectually.

After reading Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart I finally have some context for what I saw and heard that night as well as insights into much else about one of our most perplexing, frustrating, paradoxical and charismatic Prime Ministers.

Not that Watson’s book is a traditional political biography. Most of them are boringly chronological and detailed, spiced with the odd bits of salacious titillation or calculated revenge to generate publicity and attract newspaper serial rights. The Hawke autobiography – with its tale of Keating describing Australia as the “arse-end” of the world – is a typical example. With most of these efforts, as with Hawke and his book, both book and author end up on the remainder table.

Watson’s book has attracted some of the same sort of publicity centred on his accounts of the battle in Keating’s office between economic rationalists (pointy heads) and liberals (bleeding hearts), the Keating marital estrangement, his reactionary attitudes to women in the workplace, and the Prime Minister’s depressions. Yet this inevitable media coverage should not obscure the fact that this is an important book, which fuses four distinct genres, rather than just a traditional biography.

First, it is a polemic about economic rationalism, seeking to re-insert people and values into political and economic debate. Not that Watson is just some “politically correct” bleeding heart, as his criticisms of the selfishness and self-centredness of many in the arts community and his contempt for the environmental lobby make clear. His heroes are the heroes of civility – Orwell and Havel – and his ethical framework is fundamentally based on Kant’s categorical imperative.

Second, it is a great human political biography of the life and times of a complex Prime Minister. In years to come it will be ranked with some of the great political biographies of the past 100 years: Taylor Branch on Martin Luther King, Lacouture on de Gaulle, and Lord Blake on Bonar Law and Disraeli.

Third, it is a great work of political anthropology with rich descriptions of political office life – the egos, pressures, jealousies, disasters, triumphs and all the physically exhausting unreality of lives lurching between the Coliseum of question time and the tyrannies of hourly news broadcasts.

Fourth, it is a wonderfully entertaining memoir of an historian who is activist, participant and observer. One vignette – towards the end of the book in the period immediately before Keating’s landslide defeat – illustrates how Watson captures moments and people as well as writers like Saint Simon, Alan Clark and Count Ciano. Watson writes: “I bumped into Barry Jones in a Melbourne street one morning when I hadn’t been to bed; he put his face very close to mine as was always his habit, and squinted and said loudly through the corner of his mouth – in exactly the same way as he would tell you why Bach’s 32nd Cantata was superior to his 33rd, or who was state secretary of the Queensland branch in 1911, or what Ludwig of Bavaria said on his deathbed – you’ve lost your sense of humour! And he walked on, leaving me even bleaker.” The brief, churlish appearances of former Victorian Premier, John Cain, are other illustrations of how the memoir miniature can illuminate the “big picture” of which Keating was so fond.

But most of all, this book is one of the most insightful yet written about the process of writing speeches and the relationship between speechwriter and speech giver.

One can derive Watson’s technique from the book – his emphasis on dictating speeches to “hear it right” and the way he persuaded the frequently recalcitrant Keating to write down his own ideas as the starting point for many speeches. Indeed, anyone imagining that the speeches were just Watson ought to read the stylish and effective Keating note written immediately after his visit to the Queen to discuss the republic proposal.

Watson’s concept of speeches is consistent with his concept of civility. “A speech is a gesture towards order and respectability in a world which prizes spontaneity and tends towards chaos.” “A speech…is a whole thing, it is an artefact, a kind of proof that we have not submitted to modernity or barbarism.”

He canvasses the “alter ego” status of a speechwriter and sums up writing for Keating by saying: “He was not an actor performing a script which is why he did not read with much confidence. He could only perform from conviction.”

For millennia speeches were more artifice than artefact. Classical oratory, Cicero for instance, is often unreadable and incomprehensible in translation and totally concerned with effect in the original. Most post-classical oratory was ecclesiastical until, in the West at least, when monarchs pioneered a new declamatory style such as Mary Tudor’s address to Parliament on her proposed marriage and Elizabeth 1’s Armada speech at Tilbury. Later the ecclesiastical and the declamatory fused, as illustrated best in the Carlyle edition of Cromwell’s speeches.

That combination of preaching and declamation continued until as late as the 1960s. Gladstone was a great exponent in the 19th century and the major speaker at Gettysburg, Edward Everett, typified the fusion of classical, ecclesiastical and declamatory. Churchill, the Kennedys and Martin Luther King brought the style to its peak. By the Kennedys it had become formulaic and the ease with which its juxtapositions, repetitions and Wildean reversals of word sequence can be mimicked perhaps underscores its limitations. But World War One and totalitarianism had already stripped many traditional words of meaning and resonance as Orwell made clear in his essay, Politics and the English Language. Then the passing of the 1960s and the growth of managerialism saw the end of Kennedy-type commitments to ending poverty, war and racism and the cancerous spread of managerial Orwellian newspeak.

There were always exceptions of course. Martin Luther was not above the soundbite (“here I stand”) and today Gettysburg is not remembered for Everett’s speech but for Lincoln’s – an oratorical counterpoint to 19th century style as profound in significance as Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci’s modernist counterpoint to Romanticism.

Looking back on the 20th century what speeches will be best remembered? Churchill and his context make him a long odds on certainty. The combination of the 60s nostalgia and the tragedies of Martin Luther King, JFK and RFK make them strong candidates.

But for the rest it is probably old-fashioned literary quality which will decide who is in the pantheon and who is out. And, if that’s the case then Watson/Keating may well be up there with those two greatest of stylists – Charles de Gaulle and Vaclav Havel.