I was first in a room with the now-Labour leader Ed Miliband about 5 years ago, when he spoke at a conference back when he was Secretary of State for Climate Change. And I have to say, he was a pleasant surprise to me! He spoke about energy policy with warmth and conviction, and in a political climate where normally senior figures rush out of the room 20 seconds before their applause ends, he impressed me more by sticking around to chat well past the conference end. He was actually one of the last to leave the hall, talking amiably with some of the scruffier and more hard core activists while others fled for the bar.
I can hardly believe the relaxed, earnest charmer I met then inhabits the same body as the man in this photograph:
The haunting in his eyes… dear Lord. Has anyone checked whether he’s secretly blinking a cry for help in Morse Code? “T H E Y A R E H O L D I N G M E H O S T A G E. S E N D M I L I T A R Y A N D E M E R G E N C Y C O P I E S O F T H E N E W S T A T E S M A N!”
But he’s not the only one. Listen to this recent interview with Hillary Clinton in which she is interrogated 10 times about her evolving position on same sex marriage and seems to be staging a prison protest.
“These damn media, they’ll never take me alive!” she seems to cry, defiantly.
Goodness me. It’s hard up there at the top, isn’t it?
That sounds sarcastic but I actually do sympathise – I really do. For a politician who is in the public spotlight – a politician who seeks to win popular approval while at the same time being an effective leader of their Party – it must feel like you are living under the glare of a million watt bulb, receiving an electric shock every time you blink.
And, while Ed Miliband has been cowering in the spotlight for only a few short years, Hillary Clinton famously came to the world’s notice for the first time as a political leader more than 20 years ago now when she and her husband formed one of the most effective political teams most of us will ever live to see.
In those days, Team Clinton were forerunners in a new media management style that was custom-fit for the then-newly emerging world of 24/7 cable TV. Their media shop was famous for being on top of ALL the coverage, they had a rapid response team that would fire back within the hour to any story, and they imposed upon themselves the discipline of staying ruthlessly on message, even against their own inclinations to be more expansive. (“The economy, stupid!”)
It was in that world that Hillary Clinton first became the punching bag of the global media. Her hair. Dear lord, how many stories did I read about her hair? Did she bake cookies, like a real woman should? (Hillary proceeds to bake cookies and chat with Ladies Home Journal – or was it Better Homes and Gardens?) about her favourite recipe. Was she a helpless victim of Bill’s dalliances (no, she was, “No Tammy Wynette standing by her man”).
Hillary Clinton’s been living in that world for so long that a young people not even born yet when she started are now old enough to work for her. And her determination to stay tough in the face of all attacks – both those that are outrageous and unfair and those that are merely fair comment - has long since hardened into a persona that mixes carefully balanced, mistake-free public statements with the kind of “How-dare-you” outrage audible in that interview.
But the political and media environment at work today is profoundly different than the one she came of age in, politically. What was then a drumbeat of news and commentary has become a cacophony – it’s impossible to follow it all, still less is it possible to respond to it. The result, in so many politicians, has become the kind of wary, manic stare we can see in that Milliband picture. “What the hell do they want from me? I don’t know, I’ll just smile and hope the deluge passes on.”
How to spin in this world? Well, I’d suggest politicians look for guidance to the way people actually… you know… spin.
When ballet dancers began to spin their bodies rapidly, the disorientation it caused was dangerous and destabilising. They learned to manage this unnatural human state by whipping their heads around rapidly with each turn to refix their gaze on a single, fixed point. This helped them stay on their feet.
But when figure skaters began spinning – on blades and a surface that allowed for far faster spins – it was no longer possible to whip the head around so quickly. Now they had to find a new technique to keep them balanced in an unnatural, disorienting state. What they discovered was that they had to go inward, ignoring the spinning world around them altogether and centering on themselves to keep their balance.
That’s more or less the only way today’s politicians can find a way through the unnatural, disorienting demands on them by today’s world – they need to look away from the outside world and fond the balance within themselves that can keep them steady.
If they had done this, I’m pretty sure Hillary Clinton could have come up with a human answer about gay marriage, and Ed Miliband would have known better than to smilingly endorse a newspaper he has so rightly criticised in the past.