|Thirty Minute Symphony? Among her peers there is no one who approaches Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when it comes to talking the talk. She is, indisputably, New Zealand’s foremost impresario of political verbiage.|
PHIL SPECTOR’S “WALL OF SOUND” production technique revolutionised the recording of popular music in the 1950s and 60s. Simple multiplication lay at the heart of Spector’s innovation. Where other producers would hire one musician, he would employ many. Three, not one, drummers. Two, not one, pianists. Multiple guitarists – acoustic and electric. All dedicated to enlarging his young listeners’ experience. The effect he was looking for – and delivered – was a two-minute symphony.
Jacinda Ardern has perfected her own version of Phil Spector’s wall of sound. A multiplication, not of instruments, but of words. Verbal riffs and phrases that build upon one another to create an edifice of explanation that doesn’t so much enlarge as overwhelm those assigned to question the prime minister, along with those inclined to listen to her. Among her peers there is no one who approaches the Prime Minister when it comes to talking the talk. She is, indisputably, New Zealand’s foremost impresario of political verbiage.
To describe Ardern in these terms is not in any way to deprecate her. Increasingly, across the Western World, the quality most sought after by politicians – and admired by voters – is fluency. To be at a loss for words, in the current political climate, is a sure sign of weakness. What counts today is polish, style and ease. The ability to convince: not by the meaning of one’s words, but by how well one delivers them. In an age of celebrity, all that matters is the smoothness of the “talent’s” performance.
Nowhere was this phenomenon more agonisingly on display than in the on-screen confrontation between the Democratic and Republican contenders for the open Pennsylvania Senate seat: John Fetterman and Dr Mehmet Oz.
Prior to the debilitating stroke that hit Fetterman in the opening weeks of his campaign, he had been well-ahead of his rival. In spite of the fact that “Dr Oz” is a well-known television personality, he was unable to match Fetterman’s working-class “authenticity” – manifested principally through his rough-and-ready working-man’s vocabulary and diction.
Robbed of this easy fluency, however, Fetterman soon began to flounder. His positive medical prognoses notwithstanding, Fetterman’s stroke-induced inarticulateness, when set alongside Oz’s smooth delivery, instantly began to tell against him in the polls. The voters did not appear to care about the candidates’ policies, or even about their characters. The only factor that seemed to count was who sounded most like the host of a reality TV show. Pennsylvania, which, six months ago, had been seen as a slam-dunk for the Democrats, is now too close to call.
As New Zealand enters election year, a change of government may ultimately come to depend on how closely National’s Christopher Luxon can match the Prime Minister in political fluency. At the moment, Luxon is well behind Ardern. Plausible, rather than convincing, the National leader presents well enough under gentle questioning. Pressed to explain his words, however, Luxon’s fluency falters. Openly challenged by politicians or journalists with the facts at their fingertips, his fluency has an alarming tendency to disappear altogether. Unlike the PM, notorious for being formidably well-briefed, Luxon, under pressure, sounds neither convincing, nor reassuring.
The contrast between Luxon and his health spokesman, Dr Shane Reti, is instructive. Even more than Ardern, Reti presents an easy authority. On both the generalities and the details he is a hard man to fluster. That medicine is his profession undoubtedly helps, but so, too, does his ability to think on his feet.
Questioned by John Campbell on Sunday’s Q+A, Reti turned his interviewer’s collection of official statements and reports into a formidable debating point – demanding to know why it was necessary to have so many bureaucracies dedicated to supplying more-or-less identical advice to the Government. That is the calibre of performance that wins a Leader’s Debate in the final weeks of an election campaign: the sort of “Show me the money!” improvisation that enabled John Key to defeat Labour three times in a row. Can Luxon think that fast? Not on current form.
Luxon’s performance also falls short in another important respect: his ability to emote convincingly. On the “performative emotion” scale, the National Party leader is positioned several rungs short of the Prime Minister. Sadly, Nature has not supplied him with the highly mobile features of Ms Ardern, who can flash a dazzling smile of reassurance with the same ease that she adopts the pathos of a mourning Madonna, or demonstrates the empathic rictus of a woman who feels your pain. Luxon does cheery tolerably well, but all those other emotions, so critical to a successful political performance: anger, pity, disdain, lofty indifference, intense solidarity; still need a lot of work.
Naturally, all of the above were on display at various points during Jacinda Ardern’s speech to the Labour Party’s annual conference (6/11/22). Unsurprisingly, there are few contexts in which the Labour leader feels more at home than in front of the party faithful. Given the amount of practice she has had, Ms Ardern’s ease is only to be expected. Long before she became leader, “Jacinda” had made herself the darling of Labour’s membership. Her youth, her vivacity, and her ability to string together words that conveyed less in the way of deep meaning than they did of happy feeling, made her the ideal Mistress of Ceremonies at party gatherings.
It is a testimony to just how much Ardern learned about the art of communication at the University of Waikato, that she has been able to parlay her talent as an MC into the skills of a PM. She grasped early what her predecessors – Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little – missed. That what people are looking for in a leader are exactly the same qualities they admire in a game-show host. Warmth, wit, and a complete absence of condescension, obviously. But, also unflappability: the quality of always appearing to be on top of things – even when they are going wrong.
That unflappability, so evident in the hours and days following the Christchurch Mosque Massacre, White Island, and – most impressively – during the Covid-19 Pandemic, is what makes Ardern such a formidable political contender. That sense of being in control – without appearing to make any obvious effort – drives her political opponent’s crazy. John Key has it – albeit with a slightly different performative repertoire . Boris Johnson has it. And so, to the deep chagrin of millions, does Donald Trump.
Phil Spector’s two-minute symphonies made his career. That wall of sound testifying to the unstoppable power of pop music. The other wall of sound, the one produced by men and women who can read an autocue without appearing to, points to another kind of power: the kind that reassures us that even in the midst of chaos – someone is still in charge. Small wonder, then, that the politicians capable of conveying that reassurance – without an autocue – tend to win more elections than they lose.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 7 November 2022.