News from Nowhere: The Flip Side
New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern last month admitted she had given all she had to give, and chose to step back from public life, having, as she put it, “no more in the tank”. In doing so, she set an example and a precedent which others might be very wise to follow.
The art of the short story is a gift of credence in a box, the extraordinary sense of a self-contained, coherent, and utterly believable imagined universe.
Today, the most pervasive and yet the most ephemeral of such fictions may be found in the lies of politicians and in our macho myths of modern nationhood, where even the greatest genius of invention soon exhausts itself.
The narratives spun by our leaders struggle to endure well beyond their use-by dates. Plaudits must therefore be awarded to the vanishingly rare phenomenon of a political heavyweight who recognizes, acknowledges, and accepts the moment when their own story is done.
While her counterparts across the world have invariably trudged on far too long, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern last month admitted she had given all she had to give, and chose to step back from public life, having, as she put it, “no more in the tank”.
In doing so, she set an example and a precedent which others might be very wise to follow.
Ms. Ardern’s popularity was at its peak during the early months of the pandemic, thanks to the success of her measures to protect her nation’s health. Since then, it has somewhat waned, with voices within even her own government supposing the country kept its stringent Covid-19 restrictions in place unnecessarily long.
Yet the qualified esteem in which she’s still held, both at home and overseas, would be the envy of many premiers and presidents across the so-called free world. Her departure at this point looks set to cement that goodwill.
The recent death of the retired Pope Benedict XVI served as a timely reminder that even the head of the Vatican can stand down with dignity, at least once every six hundred years. His eighty-six-year-old successor Pope Francis has also suggested he would quit if ill health were to prevent him from discharging his duties.
Last December, a coalition government in Ireland quietly honored an agreement to transition from one Prime Minister to another. But pressures to resist such peaceful transfers of power, once stereotypically characteristic of developing nations, are now increasingly common in the largest and best-established democracies, including those in both North and South America.
The current resident of the White House would do well to recall how sorely his immediate predecessor outstayed his welcome and might consider whether the best way in which to conclude a lifetime of service to party and country would be to make way for a more focused, fitter candidate, perhaps one less likely to mislay confidential security documents in his garage at home.
Indeed, Mr. Biden might be struck by the pertinence of a well-known maxim often speciously attributed to wits as diverse as Phineas Taylor Barnum and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Always leave them wanting more.
Don’t do what Peter Jackson did to The Hobbit. Don’t give them War and Peace when they’ve asked for an anecdote. Don’t be the last guest at the party when the hosts want to go to bed.
Always go out on a high – as Jimi Hendrix might have said. Or, as one former Tory Deputy Prime Minister put it last month, to “go with a certain dignity” is “the right thing to do”.
By contrast, the instinct to cling onto power for its own sake, long after anything of any value might be wrought or wrung from it, can have devastating consequences, and can be, as Britain’s Boris Johnson demonstrated last year, a source of both national embarrassment and international ridicule.
Last April, Mr. Johnson had become the first British Prime Minister ever to accept a legal sanction for unlawful activities committed while in office. His Chancellor Rishi Sunak received a similar fine from the police at the same time.
Last month, Mr. Sunak took a second such fine after releasing a promotional video in which he’d been recorded travelling in a moving motor vehicle without wearing a seat belt. Johnson may have been arrogant enough to party during lockdown, but at least he hadn’t filmed himself doing so or posted it on YouTube.
After having been found to have breached his own public safety rules, and to have told multiple lies on the subject, Boris Johnson did his very best to remain in Downing Street for month after agonizing month. In doing so, he established a profoundly unfortunate trend.
Already this year, the British public have witnessed the unedifying spectacle of the multimillionaire chairman of the Conservative Party straining to hang onto his job despite having received fines from the revenue authorities for having failed to pay his taxes in full – even after a senior member of his own party had publicly described him as “toast” (and not in a good way: not golden brown and dripping with melted butter and marmalade).
Rishi Sunak was eventually of course obliged last week to fire his party chair for what he called a “serious breach of the ministerial code”.
It also emerged last month that, while Prime Minister, Boris Johnson had appointed as chair of the BBC a man who had just helped him secure a large loan. Mr. Johnson appears not to have declared this financial interest at the time.
At the same time, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister is facing a string of allegations of bullying, while the Home Secretary was reinstated less than a week after being forced to resign for committing a security breach.
Another of Rishi Sunak’s Cabinet, Gavin Williamson, had been forced to quit after just a fortnight in office, following reports that he’d sent expletive-laden messages to a senior colleague expressing his anger that he hadn’t been invited to the funeral of Her Majesty The Queen. Yet, even under such circumstances, he’d resisted his inevitable exit as long as he could.
This is the reality, the unreality, of the politics of the twenty-first century. After Trump, after Brexit, after the invasion of Iraq, no one seems inclined anymore to take responsibility for their actions, or for their duties towards honesty, transparency, and truth.
This tendency appears symptomatic of our inherent moral decadence in this age of illusion and excess, a time in which our ideals of integrity have silently died, as we’ve mistaken a twilight of the idols for the dawn of the gods.
For many, it has merely been a matter of ego and of hubris. For others, a remorseless insistence upon the maintenance of their authority has been essential to their continuing liberty and survival.
It can take some so long to take their leave that they end up appearing, like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, to have taken leave of their senses by the time they do. (And a few, like Liz Truss, look like they’ve already done so before the first time they step through the door.)
So much for these politicians’ dreams of immortality in posterity’s stratosphere. So much for their designated places in an eternal hall of fame. One way or another, they’re all destined to find themselves consigned to the flip side.
For it’s with the cool gaze of hindsight that history will come to judge the qualities and legacies of all these prominent women and men, when they and their cherished reputations have long since turned to dust.
But perhaps, just for once and just for now, we might be forgiven for taking a moment to doff our caps to the statesperson who was once caricatured as the Antipodean answer to the practically perfect Mary Poppins, as she floats off, tired yet transfigured, into those easeful clouds.