Bob Carr sparkles at US themed hour

By Anthont McClellan
Published June 1st 2006 in The Australian
It started so modestly. The two similarly dressed executives strode on to the stage at the recent Sydney Writers Festival. "My name is Bob Carr," intoned one and from that point the audience was taken on a fascinating and revealing verbal tour of past and present US politics.

Carr's guest was Hendrik ("call me Rick") Hertzberg, a senior editor with The New Yorker. The magazine, although not all that well known here, is famous for its erudite and generally very polished articles, often of substantial length. Seymour Hersh and his revelations about Abu Ghraib prison have helped put The New Yorker out front in the media wars.

Hersh wasn't here, but Hertzberg was. At the end of an extremely entertaining hour, the NSW locals among us talked about how boring politics is without the journalist-politician Carr.

He may have left the state with significant structural and other legacy problems, but at least he has a mind and an ability to express it well.

He's also something of a deadpan comedian. Sitting in front of a huge electronic banner for Macquarie Bank, Carr paid the piper up-front with a bland announcement that this session of the festival was being brought to us courtesy of Macquarie Bank.

That simple statement brought the house down with sustained laughter that, quick as a flash, Carr parlayed with: "They have the highest commendations", to even more laughter.

Carr is now reportedly a well-paid adviser to the bank.

So we were off and running, with Carr slipping ever so comfortably back into his old job of journalist interviewing subject. Although in this case it was more the local lad, rather than the import, who showed an almost obsessive knowledge of the minutiae of US political life.

Hertzberg has an interesting history, which is why he was in Sydney. A former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, he joined The New Yorker in the early 1990s and has established himself as something of a voice for liberal politics. But Carr got straight to it with a description of Carter's memoirs as "dreadful". No beating about the bush for Carr. Fortunately, Hertzberg was not the author of the memoirs and was quick to agree with the assessment.

During a wide-ranging review of the Carter-Reagan era, we learned that Carter insisted on controlling the roster for the White House tennis court - he was a details man, according to Carr - while Ronald Reagan was a political ideologue who knew some "big" things, and that was a key reason for his political success.

So the popular perception of a dumb Hollywood actor strutting the world stage (hello Arnie!) was stripped away to reveal something more complicated going on in the Reagan administration.

Carr described the US as not so much a democracy but, by Australian standards, an approximation of a democracy. He lays the blame for this on three things: the practically unknown and ill-understood electoral college, the lack of preferential voting and the Supreme Court, all of which in concert can distort the true will of the people. Carr used the 2000 US presidential election, which propelled George W. Bush into the White House, as an example of the system gone awry, with the wrong candidate ending up victorious because of the contentious vote count.

It was Bush who was in Carr's firing line and, interestingly, it was the former premier rather than the American visitor who brought substance to the argument. Not that Hertzberg was any slouch; it's just that Carr is a smartypants.

Listening to Carr, one can easily understand why he became intellectually bored with the mediocrity and mundaneness of state politics.

Zeroing in on Bush, Carr asked Hertzberg, somewhat rhetorically: "Is he slow-moving mentally? Does he see things in black and white, like many people who have had an experience with substance abuse?" The remark elicited widespread laughter.

There were not too many Bush fans in the Sydney Theatre that night. Courtesy of the local media, with its snapshots of US politics, our overwhelming impression of Bush is his slow speech and his struggle with the language, all symptoms of a man who should not have such power. Although far from being a Bush backer, Hertzberg believes that Bush is at least of "above-average intelligence".

The American guest observed in conclusion that he and Carr share the same publisher, a similar book theme, and similar glasses, and both of them wore yellow ties on the day. Peas in a pod who made one think.