By Tom Switzer.
He should pull up stumps and end his long parliamentary career, so that, with apologies to president Gerald Ford, “our long national nightmare is over”. He has no chance whatsoever of making a political comeback. After all, he has more baggage than the airlines. When not a hate figure, moreover, he is a figure of fun.
As these barbs indicate, the metropolitan sophisticates have already written the political obituary for Anthony John (Tony) Abbott. But the intellectual establishment is often wrong and history is littered with examples of fallen political leaders who mount improbable comebacks after time in the wilderness.
In recent weeks, a lot of abuse has been hurled at the “Mad Monk”. But much worse was said about Abbott’s immediate predecessor, Kevin Rudd, after his own downfall in 2010, and not just from the media either. Rudd’s Labor colleagues denounced him as “dysfunctional”, a “psychopath” and “a complete and utter fraud” with “no Labor values”. Even his former mental health adviser said he was “not fit” to be prime minister. Ultimately, voters endorsed that judgment in 2013.
But the point here is that Rudd coped with adversity after a brutal knifing, defied both the pundits and his party — and returned to the Lodge three years later. Rudd is hardly alone in mounting an amazing comeback.
Just look at Aung San Suu Kyi. The freedom fighter spent 15 years in house arrest after the Burmese junta wiped clean her political success in 1990. Yet last month, against all the odds a few years ago, her party scored an impressive victory in Myanmar’s first genuine elections in a quarter century.
Or take Winston Churchill. The British Bulldog made several mistakes during World War I, changed parties twice and spent a period in the political wilderness before heading the government in wartime and helping defeat Hitler. He then lost one of history’s biggest landslide elections in 1945, was widely written off (again), before returning to No 10 in 1951 aged 77.
How about Charles de Gaulle? France’s war hero retired from politics in the late 1940s. But when his country was plunged into crisis over the war in Algeria a decade later, he returned to public life at age 68. He set up the Fifth Republic and went on to become its greatest postwar president.
Perhaps the greatest comeback fighter in political history was de Gaulle’s understudy, Richard Nixon. In 1960 “Tricky Dick” lost the presidential election to John F. Kennedy. In 1962 he ran for governor of California, and lost again. His post-election press conference remains part of the Nixon legend. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more,” he told reporters, “because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” But he bounced back from ostracism to win the White House in 1968 and record history’s largest landslide election in 1972. And although he resigned in disgrace in 1974, Nixon bounced back again to become something of an elder statesman and bestselling author.
Intriguingly, in 1965, when virtually no seasoned observer of US politics rated him as a future presidential candidate, Nixon encouraged his friend Robert Menzies to write a book on “the exciting mystery of how so many of the world’s great leaders have had their most productive years after suffering shattering defeats”.
Menzies would know. He had led a minority government from 1939 to 1941 before he lost his party’s leadership. Widely denounced as aloof and arrogant, Ming went to the backbench and helped create the Liberal Party, which he led in opposition. By decade’s end, Menzies won power — and the next six elections to become our longest serving prime minister.
Then there’s Abbott’s political hero. Today John Howard is lionised as a political giant. But before he won office in 1996, “Little Johnny” was widely dismissed as a political loser. In 1988, The Bulletin asked the insulting question: “Why does this man bother?” Howard himself seemed resigned to his apparent fate. After losing his party’s leadership in 1989, he styled himself “Lazarus with a triple bypass” in ruling out any more comebacks. “I accept completely I’ll never be leader of the Liberal Party again. It’s out of the question,” he conceded again in 1994.
Yet within two years Howard not just reclaimed his party’s leadership but won power in a landslide. And despite being all too often dismissed by the doyens of the fourth estate, Howard won the next three elections, in 1998, 2001 and 2004.
Finally, Malcolm Turnbull. After he lost the Liberal leadership six years ago, virtually everyone (especially this writer!) had written his political obituary. Turnbull himself said he’d resign from parliament. Yet thanks largely to Howard’s counsel, he changed his mind and the rest is history.
What distinguishes Turnbull from the other comeback fighters is that he was not close to his mother. Menzies, Nixon, Howard, Rudd and Bill Clinton (whose nickname was “The Comeback Kid”) were especially close to their mums. (Rudd once told me: “Mothers shape us more than we realise.”) In contrast, Turnbull’s mother abandoned her son at age eight.
Like Rudd, moreover, Turnbull has been widely detested by his party’s grassroots. He has even lashed out at prominent conservative media figures Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt. (That would be akin to a Republican presidential candidate bagging Rush Limbaugh or Charles Krauthammer; or a British Tory leadership contender attacking The Spectator.) Still, Turnbull prevailed.
What accounts for these political comeback fighters? Call it the Arnold Toynbee theory of “departure and return”: the idea that legendary leaders must endure time in the political wilderness before returning to power. At the heart of their appeal is sheer animal survival. They overcame traumas that would have overwhelmed an ordinary person, learned from experience and tried to correct the errors of their ways.
Will Abbott, only 58, follow in their footsteps? It’s highly unlikely. Then again, the aforementioned political comebacks were not so much unusual as unbelievable. As he contemplates his future, Abbott could do worse than heed Nixon’s advice: “One is not finished when he is defeated; he is finished when he quits. Always keep fighting. When one door closes, another will open.”
This article originally appeared in The Australian.