A Long Hard Look At An Event, The Latham-Howard Handshake
In which a single action is scrutinized to show how ambiguous a thing an event can be.Wanted: a used event, somewhere in the limbo between stale news, definitive history or disappearancealtogether from historical recollection.
Nor is it always in the most distinguished achievements that men’s virtues or vices may be bestdiscerned; but very often an action of small note, a short saying, or a jest, shall distinguish a person’sreal character more than the greatest sieges, or the most important battles.—Plutarch,
Life of Alexander
History is hard to feel when it is happening but hell, this is it.—Guy Rundle,
Down To The Crossroads
From memory: I was watching the news on ABC TV the night before the 2004 election. Itmust have been October 8
. Mark Latham walked out the door of a radio studio, an ABC studio as itturned out, met John Howard the incumbent PM, who looked like he was about to go in, and the twomen shook hands. Latham did it firmly, vigorously, heartily, or aggressively. It’s hard to tell whichfrom the video. Opinions differ. I don’t remember any voiceover making any comment on thehandshake, but I do remember noticing what I took to be Latham’s exaggerated hearty goodwill. Itseemed like a kind of overdone sportsmanship from a party leader facing defeat and cracking hardy.The election followed, the Liberals won control of both the lower house and the Senate.
Some time later, maybe months, maybe a year or so, I heard the Liberal pandit GrahameMorris (I think it was Grahame Morris) on the radio, comment on that handshake. I think Morris saidsomething like the handshake sealed Latham’s fate, or if Latham hadn’t already lost the election thathandshake lost it for him, or it was emblematic of why Latham lost. Whether he said all those thingsthen, I don’t know, but I was to hear them all in time, offered up by the hindsight of posterity. I wasshocked. I didn’t quite know what Morris was talking about. What was it about that handshake? Whatwas Morris going on about? Perhaps I had missed comments on or criticism of Latham’s handshake atthe time, perhaps the media had registered it as a campaign
, perhaps criticism of Latham’shandshake had buzzed through the Coalition at the time, but if so, why? And wasn’t it too late in thecampaign for any of it to take off and take up airtime, let alone affect the election result? Where had Ibeen? Surely I had, in E.P. Thompson’s words, ‘lived through these times’. But was I just a ‘deludedfollower’?
I felt I had to rescue myself now from the condescension of this posterity.Meanwhile the electorate ‘had spoken’. And by the time I heard Morris, the boot had been sowell and truly and gleefully put into Latham’s political corpse by pretty much everyone — Liberal,press, and Labor — he was beyond condescension: history itself had voted.In late 2008 I watched the ABC documentary
The Howard Years.
Liberal ministers andadvisers reminisce about Howard and their time in his government. Not a critical history, at its best itis a video record of conservative oral history: a documentary of the memories of conservative playerswho lived through the times, interviews intercut with actual footage of those Howard years. At worst itis a celebration, a history told by those who ruled for 10 years, with a voice-of-history voiceover.George Bush and Tony Blair add occasional comments on Howard’s character. I saw the handshakefootage again. It had become an iconic moment, a gesture for a Plutarch to hang a life on. Latham washung on this one. Flabbergasted, Howard’s Communications Minister, Helen Coonan needed to mixher metaphors to describe it: ‘It was only a matter of giving him [Latham] enough rope and … er, youknow … he’d blow up’. Howard says he knew that handshake was coming. ‘This bloke’ had done itbefore, off-camera at their leaders debate. We see a shot of the two shaking hands at Channel 9 beforethe debate, the clinch obscured by someone passing in the foreground. Howard claimed to have fishedfor the later handshake at the studio door and that Latham bit. I guess it was then just a matter of reeling him in. Howard ‘knew’ that handshake ‘offended a very large number of women’.Most of this little history so far is from memory, which is famously unreliable — my memoryof seeing the original TV footage, and of what people have said since on radio and television. I ampretty sketchy about 8 October 2004 and the Grahame Morris interview, but such remembering is an