Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 36, No 11 May 30th, 1973
Don't expect too much from The Making of a New Zealand Prime Minister. Speaking at the "bunching" of the book at the James Cook Hotel, Norm Kirk pronounced "Criticism is not criticism unless it hurts. And it hurts because its true." He went on to say that the book was an excellent work of criticism. But his definition of criticism did not say how much it had to hurt, and that's why he likes the book — because the authors are afraid, or don't know how, to hurt him at all. If I'd known that Eagles and James were so matey with Norm, I wouldn't have expected as I did to read a decent work of criticism, and I wouldn't have been as disappointed as I am.
The book has all the virtues of any piece written with complacent hindsight, i.e. none. It must be quite a good holiday for journalists used to reporting political progress day by day to be able to sit back in their armchairs and look back over the years gone by. But in such a book they Can be expected not just to narrate but to produce a thesis as to why things went the way they did. But this book is all "National made a mistake.." and when you look for the-reasons you get only something like "The were out of tune with the situation". Most such phrasas are essentially unprovable assertions about how "people thought" and "most people were bored..."
There's one paragraph that has four consecutive sentences beginning with "Perhaps..." In the end the authors are content to spend all their time proving the cliche "Oppositions cannot win an election, a government must lose it."
Their hindsight becomes a bore in the whistlestop account of the last weeks before the elections. For some unaccountable reason the authors have been loath to quote contemporary reports which if not overdone can add a lot of excitement to a history. Rather they chose to knock them all into a continuous narrative which becomes a predictable parade of "Kirk is confident" and "Marshall's gatherings lack bonhomie" and "a warm crowd boost Kirk again" and "Marshall fails to enthuse" and so on and on.
The book is not all bad: while it lacks any basis in political science, it is far more readable than most works in that field. There's a good account of how labour sold out on socialism for pragmatism and some glib but accurate attacks on old National harks. Roy Jack for instance deserves to be called precious and ineffectual, if not more. One of the few Labour ministers criticised is Mat Rata who gets a timely shake-up. Books like this ought to be a medium for the expression of opinions that don't make it into the dailies or weeklies. Political journalists on large circulation papers are all supposed to be frustrated by editors who slavishly protect politicians for their own ends. Certainly standard NZ political writing is rarely more than trite generalisation and tame predictions. In such a book as this we ought to be able to expect some searching analysis, a bit of farsighted thinking, and not the least important, some scandal. But there's bugger all in Eagle and James book, which is so mild that it might be serialised in the Woman's Weekly, were it not a trifle too dull.
How's this for a brilliant analysis of the way Wellingtonians voted: "Perhaps it was because the students and civil servants, who make up so much of the city's population, were more closely aware of the state of the National Government — who can say?" Or four pages later: "Fourthly, the capital, Wellington, for some not easily explainable reason, was more strongly opposed to the National Government than any other region. Perhaps the easy explanation, that Wellingtonians knew the Government better and therefore liked it less, is the right one."
This last sentence is a good example of other faults found throughout the book. Apart from its fatuity, it is poorly expressed, badly constructed, and merely repeats what had been stated earlier, perhaps by the other author.
There is a need for more subediting throughout. There are far too many dashes and commas, a great deal of them in the wrong places. Misspellings are rife, even in names: Lorry Pickering becomes Laurie Pickering in a few chapters, Hackett loses a V in a few lines. At least twice "1960" is meant to be "1970". I suppose it keeps the readers eyes open, but the combined effect of all the errors, accidental white-outs and inaccurate pasting up, turn the book into a nightmare for any former proofreader and must be a distraction for anybody.
The book is fairly weak in the prediction department. Here's a typical insight: "Unless Kirk and his men make a succession of disastrous blunders or unless they have a run of terrible luck, it is unlikely that they will be defeated in 1975 or for that matter in 1978. It appears that the Values Party will continue to grow in political strength..."
Perhaps the books greatest failing is in that it does not even fulfil its title. As a portrait of Kirk, it is scarcely better than Dunmore's lifeless piece of sycophancy. It has a slightly more accurate account of some of Norm's knife work on the way up, but it fades out in the recent past. Eagles and James are unable to see Big Norm in the light of day, either because they're dazzled by the halo they imagine he has, or because they're stuck so far up his arse.