Friday 10 May 2013

Playing It Cool: Reflections On Aaron Gilmore's Fall From Gracelessness

Making It Look Easy: The essential attribute of the successful courtier, according to the Renaissance writer, Baldasarre Castiglione, was sprezzatura. It's a difficult word to translate: "effortless ease", " nonchalance", "careful negligence". What sets apart the political winner from the political loser is also captured in the word "cool". Hard to define - but you know it when you see it. (And you don't see it in Aaron Gilmore!)

THE BEHAVIOUR of National List MP, Aaron Gilmore, raises some interesting questions about the qualities required of a successful back-bencher.
Mr Gilmore, himself, has fulsomely apologised for the errant conduct which thrust him, battered and blinking-back tears, into the news media’s searing spotlight.
Has he done enough to rescue his political career? Probably not. The National Party’s ranking committee is unlikely to give the accident-prone Mr Gilmore a third chance.
What should he have done differently? Is there a clear path for ambitious and capable back-bench MPs to follow?
Sir Keith Holyoake’s advice to his new entrants was succinct: “Learn to breathe through your nose.” Which was the orotund National Prime Minister’s way of saying: “Keep your mouth shut.”
Strange advice, perhaps, for someone formally charged with representing the people of New Zealand.
Sound advice, however, for a back-bench MP keen to negotiate his way through the caucus hierarchy that dominates the real-world functioning of Parliament. 

Watching, listening, assessing and, when the time is right, forming durable political alliances, is the optimum path for new, back-bench MPs. And, while they’re keeping their eyes open and their mouths shut, undertaking cheerfully and effectively whatever tasks the Party Whips assign them.
The spirit in which back-bench MPs perform these often mind-numbingly boring parliamentary chores, plays a crucial role in how well, or badly, the newcomers’ colleagues rate them. Are they hard workers? Do they complain? Do they get the job done? Are they team-players?
Affirmative answers to these questions are the paving stones of the back-bencher’s path to success: to being trusted, promoted and, ultimately, given access to the levers of executive power.
But the successful back-bencher needs something more than a reputation for being a “good soldier” in the party’s army. Six centuries ago, an Italian Renaissance scholar and politician, Baldasarre Castiglione, gave that ‘something more’ a name.
In his famous Book of the Courtier, Castiglione called that special quality that separates the Aaron Gilmores from the Simon Bridges; the Jacqui Deans from the Amy Adams: sprezzatura.
Now, as is so often the case with such words, there is no adequate English translation of sprezzatura. Professor Emeritus of Cultural History at Cambridge University, Peter Burke, one of the world’s leading specialists on the early-modern period of European history, describes this crucial political quality as “nonchalance” and “careful negligence”. 

The successful sixteenth century courtier, writes Professor Burke in his 1996 book The Fortunes of the Courtier: “conceals art, and presents what is done and said as if it was done without effort and virtually without thought.”
Or, as we might say: “Today’s successful practitioner of the art of politics – makes it look easy.”
Alternatively, we could simply translate sprezzatura as “being very, very cool”.
Cool politicians earn that description by doing everything in style, effortlessly, and without the slightest suggestion of boastfulness or trying too hard. They’re as indefatigably polite and charming to the cab-driver and the hotel waiter as they are to Prime Ministers and Presidents. They are never afraid to make a joke at their own expense and know, instinctively, when it’s time to say and/or do nothing, and when it’s time to take a stand.
I’ve known a great many politicians in my time, but only a handful had Castiglione’s sprezzatura. On a good day, Richard Prebble could make politics look easy. So, too, could Rod Donald. And, if the extraordinary esteem in which he continues to be held by his fellow citizens is any guide, the Prime Minister, John Key, has sprezzatura in spades!
Indeed, a PR maven of my acquaintance reckons Mr Key has more “emotional intelligence” that any other politician he’s ever met.
And who, among the more recent intakes of New Zealand parliamentarians is demonstrating the “effortless ease” with which the game of politics should be played by twenty-first century courtiers?
Were I looking at National, I’d say Sam Lotu-Iiga; at Labour, Phil Twyford.
How NOT to play the game? 

Mr Gilmore – take a bow.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 May 2013.


Anonymous said...

The man has never had a proper job in his life. He's been around Parliament most of it, and therefore has absorbed by osmosis the general sense of entitlement and superiority that seems to have taken the place of obligation and service among many MPs. So naturally he regards ordinary people as cattle – stock units :-) to be manipulated as he sees fit. And he's done this in a much shorter time than your average MP who actually has worked outside of Parliament before being elected. Most of them succumb sooner or later. Lange certainly did judging by his behaviour while flying to and from Parliament. The only difference being that some hide it better than others.

Kat said...

"And, if the extraordinary esteem in which he continues to be held by his fellow citizens is any guide, the Prime Minister, John Key, has sprezzatura in spades!"

Therein lies one of the biggest myths of 21st century NZ.

Like the Nacts are natural born leaders and prudent managers of the economy.

Yeah right!

Anonymous said...

Chris, have you never been drunk and said daft things? Key is just as bad, but because he smiles and waves, he gets away with it. Let's all just throw stones at the guy, we are all so innocent.

Victor said...

A fine article.

'Sprezzatura' is a quality I manifestly lack. How fortunate that I never sought to make a career in politics!

Obviously, though, this is not the only area in which the egregious Gilmore is lacking.

Moreover, even allowing for his lack of emotional intelligence and courtly graces, I can't imagine he would have behaved so obnoxiously were it not for a political culture that encourages a sense of privilege and entitlement.

I suppose it's some sort of tribute to the inherent good manners of New Zealanders that this untoward (and all too prevalent) sense of entitlement only rarely erupts in such obvious displays of "bad form".

And perhaps sprezzatura is also the path to the top in the corporate world, despite all the blather and posturing about purposeful, rugged individualism.

I dimly recall reading the works of John Rawlston Saul, who makes much of both the transition from 'leaders' to 'managers'in the corporate world and of the omnipresence of courtiers.

Robert M 408 said...

It was really Key who fell from grace over the last 7 days. He's insulted East Christchurch, told Wellington they were finished and struggling. Jonkey is even more a pure PR front than Lange was. Smith, English, Joyce and Groser run the policy. I mean the site of Nick Smith essentially supporting, the Hulse-Len Brown- Richard Northey plan for the Asian repopulation of Auckland and Tim Groser declaring to Rachel Smalley that he favours putting all our eggs in the Chinese/Russian trade basket should have been electrifying to your average Nat supporter.Mai Chen may outvote him in the Queen City within a decade.
And why are such non u Nat Types as Groser, Smith and even Gilmour given Nat seats but not that bon voyant, David Round- Christchurch's equivalent to Richard Northey.
But we now know that the National Party caucus is more exclusive than the Canterbury Law School staff room. Aaron Gilmore was too common and tweeted in four letter words

Anonymous said...

Greek theatre is obvious.