Monday, May 21, 2012

Kate Belgrave on Jim Bolger

The 48th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1996 issue and is a Kate Belgrave interview with Jim Bolger. I had forgotten how brave Kate was: journalists then simply did not call the Prime Minister “a successful shit in a suit”. Discovering her and getting her started was one of the best things the magazine ever did.

Whizzing toward the top floor, the Beehive lifts emit a pained wheeze – the voice of the modern elevator. It speaks of conflict between accelerator and brake. Upon arrival, the racket cuts out, and riders are cast into a very quiet foyer, which is notable for its cuties behind the reception desk, an Economist cover picturing a gravestone and the caption “Communism II – It Lives!”, and its cloak-and-dagger air.
Everywhere, there are doors. Every few minutes, a pair of these open and a suit glides out. Its occupant has a look at whatever’s in reception, then coasts through to another set of doors. Whoosh. One such wayfarer is Therese Anders, Sen­ior Press Secretary. She comes in very quietly. She also comes with news. The PM is on the phone, so he’s a little behind. Before there’s time to kick up a stink we’re in the middle of a dialogue about my life story, which is not a bad yarn.
Next, we’re talking about office redecoration. As you will know, this comes in near the top of the list of delicate topics of this decade, no mean feat. It certainly explains why Anders takes care to point out a hoary old sofa. It is peach and it is heinous, and it is reflecting badly on our winning team. “This is what dignitaries have to sit on,” she says, rolling her eyes.
What they have to listen to is just around the corner, wearing a dark suit, a pair of light-rimmed glasses and an expression which suggests a short fuse or a long day. Then again, it may just be that this year so far is getting badly on his nerves. Let’s look at what we have here. No – let’s look at what we don’t. The America’s Cup and the French and their tests – but now they’ve gone. People want action on crime and mental health. It’s uphill stuff, and all he might end with is a grinning hippie, standing in his jandals in this very office, sharing the glory after MMP. A tunnel at the end of the light, as they say.
Still, our leader wouldn’t be our leader if he couldn’t stay on the horse, and the boys have certainly got him organised. Here, for example, is Jim at the opening of the refurbished government buildings. Here he is again, at the Sky City casino. In the flesh, steely eye contact and a no-nonsense, deliberate oratory are the features of his presen­tation, and I don’t see that changing in a hurry. We haven’t lost, as cricketers say, until they’ve won.
Interviewing him is a good way to find out nothing at all about anything much, but the thing to do is ride in fast, preferably on your high horse. After all, we’re talking higher ideals here.
To give up talking to Jim because he never says anything and you’re not always sure what he means when he does would be to let him off a hook you know he should be on. There is also always the possibility that real life might come through with a God-sent definitive moment and it is possibly with this in mind that our leader begins the afternoon by poking his head out of his door demanding a coffee. His tone, if I may be so bold, is execrable, and it adds a further dimension to the picture of a successful shit in a suit that he and the guys have been working on since the coming of big business made it groovy.
Cosmic. Everyone – interviewer, interviewee and Anders – takes a seat. Today’s subject is New Zealand’s future and so the PM breathes in and begins. “If we continue with rational government decision-making, there is no doubt in my mind that society in 20 years’ time blah blah blah blah.”
He consolidates his remarks by quoting publications which add facts and figures to the dream, or by embarking on personal anecdotes, which add him to it. It’s not a bad approach, because it doesn’t allow a lot of room for interruptions. Come to think of it, it doesn’t allow a lot of room for questions either.
“Just let me add something here,” he will say, if someone attempts to slip one in. “Just let me finish”. He is in charge and a total pro with it. Ten points, is all I can say. Absolutely no information passes between us, and in fact, the afternoon’s only real tragedy is that about 10 minutes into the performance, the entire construct is in tatters. “Nobody’s got my coffee,” the PM says, looking round. He’s right, you know. Nobody has. You’d never wait this long in a cafe.
Anders races out to see to the situation, but it’s all starting to feel a bit hopeless. Our leader’s mouth is now a tight line, but this is one guy who has been around, and if he knows anything, it’s to get back into the story. He does exactly that, and soon we’re off again. We need sensible management systems set up sensibly alongside sensible accounting systems or something to that effect – probably there’s a name for it – and New Zealand’s happy tomorrow calls for more of the same. Casing distant shores for lolly is the basic idea here and our man at the top feels the opportunities on this front are endless.
“The only thing we have,” he says, pressing the tips of his fingers together, and sending the steely gaze over the resulting pyramid, “is no shortage of markets.” The Asia-Pacific region ignites an especial fire in his eye – that great riddle of a region, laid low for a while by foreign embargoes and a long run of autocratic nutters, but happily emerging from the coma in recent times, hanging out for telephones and full of little shoppers. Get into it, New Zealand.
It’s all part of the vision Jim has of our little land as sophisticated global player, the hands of which will be joined across the water by free trade, multinational corporations, and of course, the Net.
And so on the PM speaks, verifying each passing moment that the most impressive aspect of this ideology is the extent of its grip.
Outside, Wellington’s most recent acquisition, the black tropical cloud, begins to move in. It’s still and very hot. Inside the players continue to work through it, although to tell the truth, I think we’ve all had enough. Anders sits quietly in her seat, doing her unobtrusive best to fade into it. The PM drinks his coffee and explains what markets do to people who make them cross. The only real hope now is that an SIS boy, also asleep, will crash into the room from a vent.
Other than that, all today’s story has to offer by way of hope, depth or even entertainment is its holes. “Globalisation,” Jim says at one point, grinning across his fingers. “Terrible word.”
Anders grins as well and for a few seconds, the atmosphere in the room improves as a little group fun is poked at the dream’s jargon. Heh heh heh.
On the other hand, he’ll deliver a line like “we see nothing but a forward trend-line” and nobody laughs at all. Okay, so discovering contradictions in this milieu isn’t much of a find, but at least it serves to remind that the truth in the end will out.
What am I saying? “And there was personal humanity,” Saul Bellow once wrote, “a fringe receding before the worldwide process of consolidation. This process might seem too crude to be taken seriously, but don’t kid yourself, it was shaping the future.”
Interestingly enough, Jim speaks as emphatically on social issues as he does on other topics, which is certainly saying something. “Society,” he says, “will be BETTER materially and better in terms of knowledge.” He describes crime as “one of the difficult aspects of a society that... ah ... well... I guess most of the Western World,” but points to police as a plus. “Let me give you an example of my home town of Te Kuiti,” he begins. “They have put in what they call a curfew.”
So they have, although the point I want to make is that may not be the point. The point is that lining the streets with police may be among the last, rather than first, resorts of a society in tatters. Will people construct healthy communities in the future if they’ve never actually seen one?
Unfortunately, analytical debate on these topics, fails, as ever, to get off the ground. We have a brawl instead. It’s fun and useless, and it’s also nearly home-time, so we get on to another anecdote. Back up country a while ago with Joan, Jim was reminded just how remarkable a country this is. “It is a remarkable country that our prime minister can just walk along a country road with his wife here,” he says, quoting a policeman who saw him wandering along.
He sees this as a measure of the worth of contemporary society, and probably as far as he is concerned, every day he doesn’t get shot is. It’s only a pity that the real measure is the fact that little afternoons like this still take place at all. 

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