The Unexpected and Formidable Genius of John Key, PM*
My parents have been saying nice things about him for a while, even my father — and Dad is as likely to vote National as he is to complete a triathlon in under two hours.
His poll numbers are stubbornly high — the honeymoon that never ends — but I told myself there must be a good explanation: the electorate were relieved at the change of pace and style after the ruthless Helen Clark; the global financial crisis played into conservative hands; the National Government wasn’t doing much to cause offense but this inaction would make them pay eventually.
This was before I saw New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, up-close and — this word is important — personal.
Until I arrived in New Zealand a fortnight ago, I had my default switch on with respect to John Key. He was, to my mind, a mediocre political figure presiding over a low-octane government whose ascendancy was primarily the product of propinquity: the underrated political art of being in the right place at the right time. My only vague memory of Key as an orator was a line from his victory speech in 2008 when I think he said “Congratulations, Noo Zoild”. It struck me as amusing to congratulate voters for electing you — as opposed to, say, thanking them — and his unpolished, heavily Kiwi-accented delivery added to the humour. This became the anecdote that reassured me in my assessment that John Key was completely unremarkable and a little bit gormless. Strictly C plus.
Even before the Christchurch earthquake, I had been forced to revisit my grade. For the past fortnight, the government has been grappling with the fall of a large financial institution — South Canterbury Finance — and the ensuing bail-out. This is deadly political terrain, and Key’s deft handling has been impressive. Even then, I stopped short of awarding the PM full credit; he is, after all, a former Wall St financier, so this is his comfort zone. It seemed fair to deduct points for his familiarity with the subject matter.
In the wake of the 7.1 magnitude Christchurch earthquake, there is no escaping the fact that John Key is a truly gifted political communicator. His media response has been beyond good; it is a master-class in crisis communications. He fuses empathy, effortless charm and command confidence in a way that evokes Bill Clinton — minus the stagey lip-quivering.
Key began his first live TV interview in Christchurch yesterday by telling the story of how he first heard of the earthquake: from his sister, by SMS, who lives in the quake zone. He repeated this in subsequent interviews, adding that the content of her text message was not repeatable without drawing the ire of the Broadcasting Standards Authority. This use of personal anecdotes and humour is disarmingly effective, but that is not the genius of it.
Ars celare Artem: it is art to conceal art.
When a politician speaks, I begin with the assumption that every phrase is the product of artful construction by people other than him. (I assume this because it is true. It is obvious when politicians speak without the assistance of advisors; these are called gaffes.)
Start with saying you heard from your sister….yeah, and then make a joke about how you can’t repeat what she said on air because it’ll breach broadcasting standards…but make sure you quickly pivot to say that the government swung into action and kept you updated…
When I hear a pollie speak, I find myself whispering things like “good line” or “that’s the grab”, but this is credit to the writing staff; people who, like me, make a career from advising famous and powerful people on what to say.
Key’s communication style scrambles my circuits. He appears to be entirely without guile, comfortable in his skin, and humble to the core. Is this, I scare myself by asking, genuine authenticity?
It is dangerous to be sincere unless you are also stupid
George Bernard Shaw’s acerbic observation about the limitations of sincerity could serve as a motto for modern political communication. Authenticity is a commodity like courage and straight-talkin’.
But John Key’s strangely innocent way of talking to voters is something else entirely. He wears authority so lightly, and seems so completely devoid of ego; I am flummoxed.
I have written before about linguist George Lakoff’s theory of political discourse — i.e., that most political contests boil down to the “strict parent” versus “nurtuting parent”. John Key breaks this mould, too; he is, if anything, the endlessly patient brother-in-law.
Whatever the formula — if there is a formula at all — this is a man that will be hard to be beat. John Key is either the most impressive and — yes — nicest conservative leader of his generation, or he is a diabolical genius.
*I still wouldn’t vote for him.