(First published in The Dominion Post, January 13.)
Is it time for a reassessment of the David Lange legacy?
I ask that question for a couple of reasons. The first was a speech that Gerald Hensley gave late last year.
Hensley was head of the Prime Minister’s Department under Lange and thus uniquely positioned to observe him. The picture he painted of Lange’s behaviour during the showdown with the United States over nuclear warships was not flattering.
Before I go any further, I should mention that I was delirious with pleasure when Lange’s Labour government was elected in 1984.
Sir Robert Muldoon had cast a malevolent shadow over New Zealand since 1975. He was a bully who succeeded politically by polarising New Zealanders along them-and-us lines, never more so than at the time of the 1981 Springbok rugby tour.
In Lange he faced, for the first time, an opponent he couldn’t handle. Lange seemed impervious to Muldoon’s method of attack, responding with sparkling eloquence and insouciant wit.
As prime minister, Lange appeared to champion New Zealand’s right to repudiate nuclear weapons. Many New Zealanders experienced a surge of nationalistic pride at the way he stood up to pressure from Washington to accept visits from American warships.
Peak pride came with Lange’s performance in the celebrated Oxford Union debate of 1985, when he argued that nuclear weapons were morally indefensible. He famously told his opponent, the American televangelist Jerry Falwell, that he could smell the uranium on Falwell’s breath.
Lange was in his element. He was a performer who loved to charm people with his humour and verbal dexterity. I was in Britain at the time and recall feeling quietly pleased that New Zealand and its charismatic prime minister were being noticed and admired internationally for taking an independent line.
But as Hensley has revealed, Lange was talking out both sides of his mouth – saying one thing to New Zealanders and another to our allies.
In public, he was pledging to honour Labour’s commitment to ban nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion. But behind the scenes, he was assuring America and our other Anzus treaty partner, Australia, that he would make the problem go away.
As Hensley tells it, the Americans were genuinely disposed to seek an amicable and mutually honourable solution, but in the end became so exasperated with Lange’s duplicity that they spat the dummy. He even kept his own Cabinet in the dark.
When a crisis arose over a proposed visit by the ageing destroyer USS Buchanan, carefully selected by the Americans to avoid the suspicion that it might be nuclear-armed, Lange disappeared to a remote Pacific atoll and was out of touch for eight days.
When, later, the visit was barred to satisfy anti-nuke activists in the Labour Party, the Americans justifiably felt deceived. Richard Prebble, a member of Lange's Cabinet, later described it as a shambles.
Hensley gives the impression Lange was counting on verbal equivocation to muddle through, but ended up painting himself into a corner. Far from being a courageous champion of the anti-nuclear cause, he was a dissembler who tried to play a double game – and when it failed, tried to make himself invisible.
Small wonder that Lange subsequently decided politics was too much like hard work and quit, leaving Geoffrey Palmer with the hopeless job of trying to prevent the faction-ridden fourth Labour government from unravelling.
So Lange was a charming political dilettante. But I said at the start of this column that there were two reasons to reassess his legacy. Here’s the other: plagiarism.
Whatever his failings (and in his later life Lange showed a bitter, disputatious streak), we at least admired his wit.
Wasn’t it he, after all, who once joked that New Zealand was “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica”. Yes, he did – but I recently discovered that the line was originally used by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1970, in reference to Chile.
All right then. But how about Lange’s memorable line that National leader Jim Bolger had “gone around the country stirring up apathy”?
Whoops. That was borrowed from British Conservative Party stalwart Willie Whitelaw, who used the line in reference to Labour leader Harold Wilson.
As far as I can ascertain, the line about Falwell’s uranium-enriched breath was Lange’s own. So was the one about Muldoon’s knighthood in 1984: “After a long year we’ve got a very short knight”. But you have to wonder about the provenance of some of Lange’s other witticisms.
More to the point, Hensley's recollections about the Anzus crisis suggest that being prime minister requires more than an endless supply of one-liners.
Footnote: Since this column was published, I've been reminded that the famous "uranium on your breath" comment was directed not at Falwell personally, but at a young member of his debating team. More significantly, Gerald Hensley has revealed that it was indeed not Lange's line originally. Hensley had spotted it in an Australian cartoon (he thinks it was in The Bulletin) and pointed it out to Lange, thinking it would amuse him.