British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been in the midst of a public-relations maelstrom since Sunday, when extracts from a new book by respected political journalist Andrew Rawnsley detailed a series of apparently explosive tantrums.
One insider described having “had all sorts of things thrown at me—newspapers, pens, Coke cans” during his time in Brown’s inner circle, and a civil servant described Brown as existing in “a permanent state of rage.” Brown allegedly accosted his deputy chief of staff, who had just delivered an unwelcome piece of news, grabbed him by the lapels and shouted: “They’re out to get me.” Another aide, traveling beside Brown in a car, reportedly cowered in fear as an irate Brown swung a fist back, only to watch with relief as the prime minister instead landed a blow on the back of the seat in front of him. Brown even allegedly unleashed a profanity-laced tirade at American political consultant Bob Shrum after learning that a Shrum-written speech included passages strikingly similar to those uttered by American politicians.
“There is in British politics—and I think in American politics, too—a certain sentiment where people want to be led by an A-type personality.”
The leaders of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, the two main rivals to Brown’s ruling Labor Party, have called for an inquiry into the prime minister’s actions.
One thing remains unclear, though: whether Brown has been damaged at all by the revelations. The early signs will give the prime minister some solace. A new poll in Tuesday’s Guardian newspaper, part of which was conducted after the bullying accusations emerged, shows Brown staging a recovery of sorts from a position that had once seemed hopeless.
The poll gives the Conservatives a lead of only 7 percent over Labor, and indicates Labor’s support is up eight points from its lowest level, recorded last May. If the poll is accurate, the general election that is expected to take place in May will likely have no conclusive winner—a much better outcome than Brown could have dared expect just a few months ago.
This, in turn, raises a question that has equal resonance on both sides of the Atlantic: Does the public secretly like semi-belligerent leaders? Presidents like Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson wore their aggressiveness as a badge of honor. British leaders from Margaret Thatcher back to Winston Churchill thrived on steely abrasiveness rather than charm.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a little sliver of the public doesn’t have a sneaking admiration for that toughness of Gordon Brown,” Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland told The Daily Beast. Though adding that “nobody likes a bully,” Freedland noted that Thatcher took “almost martial, bellicose positions, talking about crushing her enemies, and it never seemed to do her any harm...There is in British politics—and I think in American politics, too—a certain sentiment where people want to be led by an A-type personality.”
This observation would seem particularly apt in the context of Brown’s alleged outbursts. In stark contrast with the sunny personality of his predecessor, Tony Blair, Brown's demeanor is dour, recessive and technocratic. The revelations that he’s actually capable of acting hot-bloodedly human at times, then, could serve to humanize him for a British electorate that has tended, even in good times, to see him far more as competent than leaderly.
The voting public will only view the reports about Brown’s private bouts of volatility, in other words, in the context of what they already believe to be true about his overall temperament and capability.
John McCain remains one of the most famously irascible members of the Senate. A former Arizona senator, Dennis DeConcini, told me in 2008 that he “witnessed McCain on a number of occasions absolutely explode,” eventually concluding that “there was something wrong with this guy, in my opinion.”
Yet McCain’s temper—it has been widely reported that he once called Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa “a fucking jerk,” while the recent book Game Change details his fondness for that same profanity at length—has caused him less political trouble than his more substantive moments of unsteadiness, such as his response to the 2008 financial crisis and his selection of Sarah Palin as his presidential running mate.
“I don’t think it’s bad for any elected official to have a temper,” Democratic strategist Steve McMahon told The Daily Beast. “The only problem is when they let their temper get the better of them and they do something they later regret.”
To McMahon, the key point is the difference between showing emotion (“a very good thing”) and losing control (“certainly not a good thing”). The description seems tailor-made for Bill Clinton, who kept many of his worst tantrums behind the closed doors of the White House while president but whose bizarrely intemperate behavior on the campaign trail in 2008 caused big problems for this wife.
A broader issue also lingers: whether the political world, male-dominated and traditional as it is in many respects, is fertile ground for the kind of macho dynamics that are increasingly being expunged from other work environments.
In Britain, while Jonathan Freedland acknowledges that Brown is “the first real intellectual to be prime minister for a very long time,” he also notes that the circle around the prime minister is composed of “old-fashioned people—the beer-in-hand, watching-football-on-the-TV macho types.”
Yet Steve McMahon argues that political campaigns “are not that different from the non-candidate world. Maybe the difference is that in political campaigns there is the additional pressure that results from having to respond more quickly [to events or attacks], often without complete information. So the pace means there is very little time for circumspection—and that often brings out the best or exacerbates the worst in people.”
Apparently, that’s something the public understands and is—at least sometimes—willing to forgive.
Niall Stanage is a New York-based, Irish-born journalist and the author of Redemption Song: An Irish Reporter Inside the Obama Campaign (Liberties Press, Dublin).