The Weekend Australian

A review by Tom Switzer of Letters To My Daughter by Sir Robert Menzies and Heather Henderson.

In February 1969, Robert Menzies enjoyed a White House dinner with Richard Nixon and a few distinguished guests, including national security adviser Henry Kissinger, secretary of state Will Rogers and Thomas Dewey, the 1948 Republican presidential candidate. The meeting took place within a month of Nixon's inauguration as president -- and three years after Menzies' retirement as prime minister. Think about that, about any one of Menzies' successors having a private meal with a new US president years after leaving office. It wouldn't happen.

But the episode was more curious for another reason, one that Menzies noted in a letter to his daughter. ''While the new president and all the others present put questions to me and were anxious to get my views and, where possible, my advice,'' he wrote, ''I was able to look back with a wry smile and remember that since I retired no member of the administration in Australia, and for that matter no Member of Parliament, has ever asked me for my views on anything.''

Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the gulf between the local and foreign impressions of Menzies in retirement. Whereas at home he was dismissed as some sort of fuddy-duddy, abroad Australia's longest serving prime minister was lionised as a world statesman. Such observations are evident in this edited collection of previously unpublished letters from Menzies to his adoring daughter. Comprising correspondence written from 1955 to 1975 while Heather Henderson was living overseas with her diplomat husband, Letters To My Daughter is essential reading for any political enthusiast.

Unlike his successors in retirement, Menzies did not publicly air his criticisms of peers and the political scene. Nor was he afflicted by relevance deprivation syndrome.

''I must confess that I have not missed politics since I retired,'' he wrote on the eve of the 1966 poll, the first federal election he did not contest in two decades. ''Even the smell of the battle hardly reaches my nostrils.''

And yet these ruthlessly frank letters reveal Menzies' disgust and frustrations about many things, from the public broadcaster (''I have never been persona grata with the ABC, nor the ABC with me'') to Britain (''There are masses of splendid young men and women in this country and a mere handful of these lunatics, but the lunatics command the press'').

We are told that John Gorton (PM, 1968-71) ''very seldom does all his homework and is therefore inclined to form a quick and ill-informed judgment''. Billy McMahon (PM, 1971-72) was ''that untrustworthy little scamp''. Billy Snedden (Liberal leader, 1972-75) was, among other things, ''politically, an idiot. He always says the wrong thing, at the wrong time.''

In February 1968, Menzies watched the cricket with his long-time Labor opponent Arthur Calwell: ''Ninety per cent of the time he devoted to his opinion of [Gough] Whitlam, which needless to say coincides with mine.'' He praised several rising Liberal stars in 1974, such as Malcolm Fraser, ''the top man in the Opposition . . . who really has a sense of statesmanship and who, unlike his predecessors, looks beyond the next day's leading article''. But that judgment was not based on any progressivism on Fraser's part. If anything, Menzies was contemptuous of ''small-l liberals'' for betraying conservative principles. As he put it in 1974, they ''believe in nothing but . . . still believe in anything if they think it worth a few votes. The whole thing is quite tragic.''

Menzies was no wet. But neither was he a crass partisan. On the Coalition's intention to use its Senate numbers to deny the Whitlam government supply on the eve of the 1974 double dissolution election, he said it was ''idiocy'', ''wrong in principle'', ''a matter without precedent''.

Then there are Menzies' musings about the US in the late 1960s. He was amused how the media consensus implied that ''our special relationship'', which Menzies and Percy Spender created in 1951, was ''established after I resigned''. On a leading Republican 1968 presidential candidate: ''Governor Romney . . . is a Mormon [who] appears to be personally well-liked and very presentable'', but his views on important issues were ''either unknown or studiously equivocal.'' (Sound familiar?) LBJ was ''what you call a great non-listener''. During Menzies' trip to the Austin ranch in February 1970, LBJ ''literally talked all the time. I got a few sentences out, but I don't think that [my wife] managed to say anything to him at all.''

This page-turning book provides a fresh and honest insight into Menzies: a frustrated former politician, to be sure, but also a widely respected global figure and loving father. Alas, there's just one problem: because the timing of the letters is determined by his daughter's time overseas, we only read Menzies' private thoughts at limited stages during this 20-year period. We never read, for instance, what he thought about the first prime ministerial knifing: McMahon's coup against Gorton in March 1971. If only Henderson had been overseas longer. As Peter Costello recently quipped in the Spectator Australia: ''That would have enriched the treasure trove even more.''

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney.