Saturday, December 03, 2005

Paul Thomas: Loving it in the limelight

We can run but we can't hide from these two. They give new meaning to the word ubiquitous.

Before kick-off in the All Blacks-Scotland game, the camera zoomed in on the flag-waving figure of Sonny Shaw, contract accountant and have-passport-will-travel sports tragic.

And when Tana Umaga went up to collect the silverware, there he was in the best seat in the house, smirking like a wily old merchant in a Middle Eastern bazaar: Winston Peters, our guaranteed 100 per cent bauble-free Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Ubiquitousness isn't all they have in common.

Both, obviously, are sports-lovers. Young Winston was a useful midfield back who played in University's 1971 Gallaher Shield-winning team and was one of the few sportsmen to master the art of smoking in the shower.

Both have love-hate relationships with the media. Winston has been pretty much in hate mode since assuming office, to the extent of taking a leaf from the Robert Mugabe Manual of Media Management and accusing this newspaper of treason.

Sonny gets his face on TV almost as much as the weather girl. Last summer Sky Television got sick of his camera-hogging antics and tried to restrict him to parts of the ground where he couldn't constantly thrust himself into the frame. As an exercise in futility, it was up there with farting against thunder.

Both have a history of late-night scuffles in Wellington's club-land.

Sonny got on All Black Jerry Collins' fighting side and lived to tell the tale, which is something to relate to the grandchildren.

His subsequent efforts to land Collins in hot water over what was, by all accounts, no more than a dismissive hand-off showed the sort of tit-for-tat prickliness that often marks international affairs.

Both jet around the world, seemingly driven by a compulsive urge to have their photos taken with famous people.

Both purport to represent New Zealand to the bewilderment of the international community - Helen Clark must be getting sick of being presented with please explains - and the embarrassment of their compatriots.

Historians searching for precedents for Winston's bizarre appointment have gone all the way back to Caligula's horse.

The Roman Emperor Caligula supposedly gave serious consideration to making his horse Consul, although there's a school of thought that it was a joke which went over the head of his long-suffering subjects. Given that he was a megalomaniacal fruitcake with a penchant for incest, how were they meant to know?

Since Helen Clark and her deputy Michael Cullen are supposedly ultra-smart political operators, it's tempting to assume that a cunning plan is unfolding before our eyes.

On the other hand, ultra-smart operators have been known to do dumb, politically disastrous things.

Bill Clinton's supremely tacky liaison with a White House intern young enough to be his daughter is one example.

Another is Paul Keating's admirable but doomed attempt simultaneously to promote an alliance with Indonesia and reconciliation with the Aborigines, thereby delivering the working-class redneck vote to John Howard who has pandered to it ever since.

Perhaps, though, it was an appropriate appointment in that Winston can be seen as epitomising a New Zealand stereotype.

The model here is France's former Foreign Minister, Dominique De Villepin. Dubbed "the silver wolf with burning eyes" by an obviously love-struck journalist, De Villepin recently graduated to the Prime Ministership without ever having taken part in an election, which tells us something about the state of French democracy.

A self-published poet and self-styled intellectual, De Villepin has written a biography of Napoleon (fancy that) and the startlingly titled Elegy To The Fire Thieves, an 824-page homage to various deranged poets, including Antonin Artaud, the founder of the theatre of cruelty. (The cruelty in question is that inflicted on the audience.)

Artaud believed that all sexual activity was harmful to the creative process and should be avoided by those hoping to achieve purity in their art.

This is eerily similar to the mania afflicting the character of General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love The Bomb.

Ripper, who ushers in the end of the world by turning a training exercise code-named Operation Drop Kick into a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, believes women sense his power and seek his essence.

"I do not avoid women," he says, "but I do deny them my essence."

Just as the haughty, aristocratic, monumentally pretentious De Villepin is a certain French self-image come vividly if not satirically to life, it's possible to view Winston as the personification of the mythical Kiwi bloke.

Half-Maori and half-Scottish, a rugby fan who enjoys a fag, a drink and a roughhouse, suspicious of difference yet at ease in any company, a populist with no discernible political philosophy, unworldly but cunning, Winston is a New Zealand Everyman.

Next time the Prime Minister is being badgered by presumptuous foreigners - did we seek urgent clarification when our neighbours unleashed Alexander Downer, the Australian version of an upper-class twit, on an unsuspecting world? Did we protest at the appointment of Madeleine Albright, the Mrs Doubtfire of diplomacy? - she should point this out.

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