Though apparently similar, Abbott and Costello differ markedly. One is a charming rogue, the other an uncharming bully. One admits his failings, pleading drink, lust or weariness, the other denies having any. One is a wily survivor and the other a proud recalcitrant egoist unmanned by his pride, a stiffnecked Coriolanus contemptuous of the herd, and the timorous party morons who failed to note his pre-destiny.
One works hard, the other (I believe) is lazy. And one, Tony Abbott, can write really well, with lucidity, mischief, moral persuasiveness and a kind of jovial dignity like his fellow Oxonian blow-in Bill Clinton. A first-class boxer, he has an unbroken nose, a truly impressive achievement in one so ideologically combative.
He writes really well; yet I wish he had told us more. What a Jesuit boarding school was like after hours. What he and Ed Campion spoke of in the seminary. What he thinks of while jogging uphill through mist in Manly at dawn and looking over at St Barnabas's, where he spent formative years. What alternative life he imagines, shotgun wed to Kathy at 19 and raising another man's child. What he said to Tanya Costello on their eight or nine dates, and what she said to him. How one goes from dating to priestly chastity, and how it feels a month after. With whom, while he was a trainee priest, he was "not as celibate as I should have been" and how often.
I look forward to reading his equivalent, post-politics, of Adventures in the Screen Trade. He has the ability to write it, and the charm to tell Phillip Adams about it in detail without losing friends. "Has your whole life, in fact, your whole career", I can hear Phillip ask, "been a kind of Vatican Roulette?" "Well... ah ... Phillip...I...ah...."
He writes really well, and gives the Howard era the most compelling defence it will get from a first class mind in the next 50 years. He makes you almost agree with him on those things - the hectic misery of Opposition, the lower class roots of One Nation, the bureaucratic ructiousness of Health Care in a federal system, the causes of the Federation and why it isn't working, the prescience of Fightback!, the persuasiveness of Santamaria, Hayek, Plimer, Reith - you haven't yourself thought through.
He examines with care, in a wonderful couple of paragraphs, the alternative 'liberal' and 'conservative' arguments for Work for the Dole, the Intervention, the turning back of the boats and the Pacific Solution, and how they overlap and converge. He explains the emergence of Wentworth Man
and why Howard lost the 'doctors' wives', and how he to his shame helped create One Nation by giving Oldfield a job and the use of a fax machine, and how he sought to destroy it.
He looks again at the Reid-Deakin arguments over individualism and interventionism which continue unabated, pretty much, in our political life today. He is fair to his opponents and his judgements of Swan, Tanner, Gillard and Rudd ring true. "Rudd lacks close friends or staunch allies to rely on when his popularity finally fades," he says, and that seems about right.
And his paragraph on marriage, no small subject, is as good as any I have read.
"A hundred years ago," it says, "most people married their first love at about 20 and lived to be about 50. These days, people typically marry their third or fourth love at about 30 and live to be about 80. It's not realistic to expect most young adults in this hyper-sexualised age to live chastely for many years outside marriage. Even if people's expectations of their partners and spouses were much less high, longer lives would tend to mean more potential exposure to the rocks on which marriages often founder. People have not so much abandoned traditional mores as found that the old standards don't so readily fit the circumstances of their lives."
Though he sued me and cost me income and influence and a lot of public dignity (I wrongly alleged he listened to Tanya Costello's views on politics - a shocking thing to do, it seemed in those far off days, to listen to a woman, for it cost my publishers a million dollars) I find him in person curiously disarming, and I find myself agreeing with him uncomfortably and often. Constitutional monarchies do have a better track record than republics. Abortion should be legal, safe, infrequent and frowned upon. Our hospitals do not need more administrators but more nurses, doctors and beds. Hawke's Economic Summit was a success, and Rudd's 2020 a glittering failure. Conservatism is not a political philosophy, but, as Oakeshott said, a state of mind.
Yet in foreign affairs he proves, alas, to be one more woolly Howardite denialist. It was fair after 9/11, he says, to start to bomb al-Qaeda's hideouts to smithereens, though for eight years we've been bombing them, it seems, in the wrong country. Saddam Hussein would have killed or driven into exile more Iraqis than we did, he says - five million I suppose, to our more modest four million, or 10 times more than in the previous 30 years. Bush was wrong to have sacked the entire Iraqi civil service and let half a million sacked soldiers keep their guns, he says, but right to admit his mistake. America's leadership which has this millennium killed 20 million children with AIDS, bad water and cluster bombs isn't perfect, he says, but a worse could come in its place. It's hard to see whose. Zimbabwe is "not a regional threat", though it's not very good for Zimbabweans. Does he believe all this? He can't.
He writes very well. But in the end he is, like Turnbull, just putting spackle over the concrete cancer that is Liberal incompetence and adding one more layer of craven obeisance to America's vacuous bombs-away barbarity with a nervous, widening smile. In foreign affairs, like his party's founder Robert Menzies who admired Hitler and loathed Churchill, it seems he doesn't get it. For killing children is wrong, monsignor, is it not? And we kill more of them each month, do we not, than the Taliban, Hamas and al-Qaeda put together? And this distresses their mothers and loses us influence everywhere, or am I wrong? No children died on 9/11 and 10,000, perhaps, under Shock and Awe. A small discrepancy, monsignor, not worth worrying about, surely.
This is not to say he's ineducable and won't change. What's most impressive about this book is the sinuous lucidity of an evolving mind at work, forever wrestling dark angels of doubt, illogic, bad habit, exploded traditions and the occasional urge to sink a Guinness and break a Protestant nose.
Or even, perhaps, perhaps, to reject or resist a Catholic education. He still thinks eating Christ's flesh and drinking his blood most Sundays a useful pastime and Mother Church not a swarm of predating sodomites who will fry in hell forever (his affable portly comrade Christopher Pearson perhaps among them) but his learning curve may lead him to less barbarous convictions when he is, as he may be, Prime Minister in 2014.
I wish this young man well in his important endeavours and hope he finds, beyond the celibate priesthood and a badly corrupted, wowser-heckled, down-hearted and squabbling parliamentary party, his true calling.
PS. The person he most resembles, I've just decided, is Scott Fitzgerald. The classic good looks, big flashing smile, easy Irish eloquence, angelic writing style, self-doubt, Catholic guilt, hot temper, Gatsby-like yearnings for past relationships long gone and luminous in remembrance, fondness for football and self-flagellation and his need for a son, all bespeak a literary genius drawn by Life and lesser pursuits into spiritual shallows and drunken remorse like Scott, poor Scott. We have lost thereby good books he might have written, and gained - what? – a cheery, self-mocking buffoon?
Or the Tories' last, best hope of power?
First Published ABC website: Unleashed