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Essay 4. A Long Hard Look at an Event, The Latham-Howard Handshake

Essay 4. A Long Hard Look at an Event, The Latham-Howard Handshake

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Published by Ross Macleay
The fourth of seven essays on the philosophy of history. A single forgettable but unforgotten incident at the end of an election campaign in Australia in 2004 is scrutinized in order to see just what kind weird thing an historical event is.
The fourth of seven essays on the philosophy of history. A single forgettable but unforgotten incident at the end of an election campaign in Australia in 2004 is scrutinized in order to see just what kind weird thing an historical event is.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Ross Macleay on Sep 19, 2010
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09/18/2010

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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
, 249
 From memory: I was watching the news on ABC TV the night before the 2004 election. Itmust have been October 8
th
. 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.
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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
gaffe
, 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’?
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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
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historical event itself, an act of the times. History passes through experience, then the blood and brainsof memory, then out it comes out in words.
3
Memory is all or most of what people who live throughthe times have. Each of us is like that old man in the little Borges fable, a Saxon, dying in achurchyard and taking with him the last images, his alone, of the pagan past that will die with him.One memory I am pretty sure about is that I
was
shocked when I first heard Morris’s claim about thesignificance of the handshake. I was surprised at the assumptions that Latham had done anythinguntoward, that any voters had thought that he had done something untoward, that the handshake waspivotal in or at least emblematic of the 2004 election result, and at the implication that Latham hadthereby, to use media talk,
committed a gaffe
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. Meanwhile I wasn’t at all sure just what, if anything,Latham had done wrong, and I was suspicious of others who claimed to know exactly what he haddone. At first I found that no one spelt it out. Whatever it was seemed to be so obvious to Morris andothers that they hardly bothered to be explicit about it. The same in
The Howard Years.
Perhaps it wasnot my memory but my perception that was unreliable. Perhaps I didn’t get it. Maybe I resented this.In one of these matters my own memory did not matter much: there was always the video of the handshake. Actual footage is empirical history par excellence. To check my observation I couldwatch it again and again. And I did and I have since. Even so I have not really been able
see
theproblem, or see the aggression, if aggression is the problem. I can read aggression into it but I can’t
know
it’s there. Maybe this proves my perception of humans and their motives is unreliable. Whenobserving human action, especially social interaction, faulty perception of intentions amounts tonaïveté, credulity, poor character judgement, lack of empathy, social ineptitude. Maybe there is anethical argument for keeping an open mind, but in politics epistemological scruples equal gullibility.Just over 53 minutes into episode 3 of 
The Howard Years
5
we see Howard and some of 
themedia entourage
, cameras in hand, posing for a photo outside the studio. A shot to commemorate theirtime together on the campaign trail. We see Tony Eastley inside the studio interviewing Latham for, Iassume, that morning’s ABC radio’s
 A.M 
.
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Meanwhile Fran Kelly’s voiceover tells us that ‘byelection eve the Coalition was confident of victory and now Mark Latham
was doing everything tohelp
’. Then we see the handshake. Howard tells us what he thinks about Latham’s handshaking form,and we are shown Howard’s and Latham’s mostly obscured handshake at the leaders’ debate, and thenin Howard’s words ‘right on cue’ we are shown the iconic handshake again. This time with a cuthalfway through the handshake to a longer shot from another camera: the judgement of history shot.In the footage Latham comes out of the studio, Studio 211, and leans a long way forward totake Howard’s hand, he takes it firmly, and pulls himself up close to Howard. He unbalances Howardand jerks the Prime Minister towards him, almost off his feet. Maybe it was just all too physical forsome viewers, more like Rugby League than politics. Watching it all again some months after writingthe first sentence of this paragraph, I managed to notice how close Latham’s face gets to Howard’s andhow much bigger Latham is, leaning towards and over Howard. I could have described this as ‘in yourface’ and ‘stand over’ but not in honesty. The whole thing looks clumsy. Latham is too boisterous. Fora man ‘who knew it was coming’, Howard looks physically unprepared. Latham’s grin is forced. So isHoward’s. The handshake was always going to be awkward, between enemies constrained by rulesdemanding cordiality. It lasts long enough to raise the questions ‘how long should this handshake last’and ‘how do they end it’. In a handshake there must be, at some level, cooperation, but even people of good will can’t always manage the synchronised choreography of a felicitous handshake. There arewords of greeting between the two, some sound slurred as if the nerves of the moment take over.Howard looks as though he’s ready to be released from Latham’s grip; he solicits an end by saying‘OK?’ and they release one another. As Latham turns to go Howard pats him on the back and entersthe studio. That’s all. I still can’t see that handshake for what others say it was. Of course it doesn’ttake much imagination to impute hostile intent — mutual — but it doesn’t take much imaginationeither to impute hostility veiled in boisterous cordiality and not expressed in physical violence.However, Liberal insiders, the media, perhaps ALP minders and perhaps a lot of the viewers thatevening saw aggression. Friends I ask about it seem to have seen the handshake as aggressive, buteven then I can’t believe that my perception would have been all that unusual among casual voters thatFriday evening before the election. I was probably having a beer, talking, cooking tea and watchingthe ‘election eve’ news.
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So I’ve been wondering: what did happen outside the ABC studio that morning, what mediaevent
7
took place that election eve, what is the truth claim of the shot in
The Howard Years
, what didthat event become.The clip has the disadvantage of not being quotable here, in print. All I can do is translate theshot into descriptions, but what a shot shows and what a description of it says are never the same.
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 That’s a problem. I have already written descriptions of several acts taking place within the manifoldevent of the shot. Some of what I’ve written refers to the same act but under different descriptions bydifferent people. Sometimes these different descriptions are inconsistent or contradictory, in whichcase the identity of the act is ambiguous: we saw the same act but we are not talking about the sameact. Several different acts have been identified in the same event-space, where only one act at mostcould have occurred.Howard offers his version in
The Howard Years
. He describes his own shrewd politicalperformance, letting Latham exhibit a ‘very silly’ handshake. Howard supports the story of hiscunning with a slightly inaccurate description of the handshake at the leaders’ debate, when Latham‘did the same thing’. The debate handshake did not happen quite as Howard says when ‘the camerasweren’t on us’. A viewer can see the men shaking hands but the initial clinch is obscured by someone
9
 passing in the foreground. Any silliness at this stage would not be visible. But as the passer-by movesand the camera zooms in some of the shake and the release become visible, although still partlyobscured by Howard’s back and arm. What I notice about that handshake is Latham’s nervous,mispronounced answer to Howard’s ‘good to see you’. He says ‘yay’ rather than ‘yeah’. The sametongue twisting nerves he suffers in the later studio door shake. Maybe he was forewarned; besidesLatham and Eastley the radio studio was full of people to tell him Howard was outside, but Howardwas standing right up close to the door and I reckon
this took Latham by surprise. Beyondclumsiness, any silliness on Latham’s part was strictly off the cuff.We can read Latham’s version. The event was revisited in the media during the election
washup
; it looks like it took three weeks to bubble back to the surface. Brian Loughnane, the Liberalcampaign manager, spoke to the National Press Club on the 27
th
October 2004. Maybe this was whenthe media registered that the event and its interpretation had become a
media event 
. I don’t know.There is an article in
The Age
online for 27
th
in which Latham responds to criticism of his handshakewith his own critique of Howard’s ‘armshake flapping style’. Writing in
The Daily Telegraph
on the28
th
, Malcolm Farr said ‘to many, Mr Latham was menacingly shirt-fronting the much smaller MrHoward’. Farr himself says ‘it wasn’t a pleasant scene’ and he reported that Loughnane had told thePress Club that the Liberals ‘received more feedback about it than any other campaign incident’. Thismedia coverage must have stimulated a note in Latham’s diary. The published entry for 29
th
Octoberreads:
Yesterday, for the first time, I saw footage of my handshake with Howard the day beforepolling day. What are they going on about in the media? It’s a Tory gee-up: we got close to each other,sure, but otherwise it was a regulation man’s handshake. It’s silly to say it cost us votes—my numbersspiked in the last night of polling.The full story: Howard deserved a lot more than a firm handshake. Throughout the campaign,every time I saw him he kept on trying to give me a bone-crusher, squeezing tight and shaking with hisarm, instead of his wrist, like a flapping motion. It’s a small man’s thing, trying to show you can matchthe big guy at something. I wasn’t too worried about it, thought it was funny, until the last Sunday of the campaign at the St George Leagues Club lunch, when Howard did the same thing to Janine. Shesaid to me, ‘that man just tried to break my hand. It really hurt’.Enough was enough. Next time I saw him, at the ABC radio studio in Sydney, I put on thesqueeze and got a bit closer to him, so he couldn’t do the flapping thing. The weak animal lookedstartled, so it had the desired effect. It’s ironic however: I’m supposed to be the intimidating oneinpolitics, but I have never tried to break a woman’s hand. How does Howard get away with it?
 That ‘enough was enough’ implies some unyielding intent. Probably hostile, possibly not.Latham insists his was ‘a regulation man’s handshake’ — at the time that’s what it looked like to me, alimp-wristed sufferer of many a regulation handshake — but a handshake spiked with ill intent is notquite regulation. Just what Latham did depends on whether we read his words or his handshakecharitably, and that might depend on whether we want to look knowing rather than naive.
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