Sunday, August 14, 2005

Lange: a tribute

David Lange died peacefully last night after a period of long illness. He was an enormously complex person whose legendary wit and affable charm far outshone his inconstancy, his duplicity and his cratered legacy.

Lange entered Parliament to make New Zealand a better place. When he became Prime Minister in 1984, ending Robert Muldoon's nine year reign, he had genuine hopes of governing as a popular and moderate leader. Unfortunately for him, the economy required unpleasant radical change and Lange had to pose instead as the public face of Roger Douglas's reforms. He was never quite at ease in this role and his growing dissatisfaction caused a public split with Douglas that destroyed the credibility of his government and himself.

The most rewarding part of Lange's leadership were his public triumphs on the world stage, the best-known being the Nuclear Ships row and the Rainbow Warrior affair. For daring to stand up to the United States over whether its ships could visit NZ ports, he was pleased by the resulting accolades. Yet the truth was that the row was unneccessary being caused by his mismanagement of a proposed US ship visit. By humbling the haughty French into apologizing for the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior made his star rise even higher. Yet Lange was not able to prevent the French from testing nuclear tests in the Pacific and his government's abject capitulation into returning the captured agents to the French haunted him in his final years.

The loathing inspired by his second term in government has largely faded now while the pleasant memories of him still remain. Even the malice of his memoirs has failed to reopen the old wounds that his government wrought while his colleagues have borne his backstabbings with commendable restraint. In short, David Lange will be best remembered for the elegance of what he said rather than the accomplishments of his government and he would have prefered it that way.