World view - Michela Wrong sees sense in ex-politicians

Listening to Robert McNamara these days, you have to wonder why politicians start to talk sense only

Liver-spotted, bald-pated and soon to enter his 90th year, Robert McNamara makes, on the surface, for a rather unlikely hero. But for the thousand-plus crowd who paid to listen to him during the closing days of the Hay-on-Wye festival, the former defence secretary to John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson had more magnetism than Derren Brown. They hung upon his every word, chuckled over ironic lines delivered in a gravelly growl, and at the end, some even stood in ovation.

These days, thanks to the documentary The Fog of War, McNamara comes with a golden aura: the mysterious star quality bestowed by being on film. But there was another reason for the crowd's enthusiasm: what a relief it is, after all the guff we get served up each day by our political class, to hear someone talking plain, lucid, common sense. How refreshing, after the macho posturing of the Bush administration, to hear a former American statesman who knows what it is to wield real power urging the west to make the intellectual effort to empathise with its enemies, calling on Washington to open bilateral talks with North Korea and suggesting practical ways of lowering tension between Israel and the Arab world.

It set me thinking: why do the world's movers and shakers start talking sense only once they are out of power? Why do they become both human and humane only when they fall from grace?

Few of us in Hay that day would have had the same appreciation for McNamara in his prime. Many of the wise "lessons" he delivers in The Fog of War clearly came to him late in life and would probably have been rejected as sentimental twaddle by the young McNamara. Put to one side his role as superhawk and enthusiastic prosecutor of the Vietnam war, and you are still left with his disastrous presidency of the World Bank in the 1970s, when the institution tripled lending to well-meaning but incompetent African governments such as Julius Nyerere's in Tanzania, helping to create the very debt burden that the G8 is now considering writing off.

So how come a man as controversial in his day as Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz, and who bungled US foreign policy as disastrously as either, today shows such imagination, tolerance and insight?

It is not a unique phenomenon. Remember what an arrogant twit Michael Portillo once seemed? Today, commenting on parliamentary affairs or the lessons of history, he shows both compassion and a subtle understanding of party politics. Ditto the once irritating William Hague and the smug Robin Cook. On the international scene it's the same story: Jimmy Carter has done more for world peace and the battle against disease since leaving the White House than he ever achieved as president.

You could argue that this is all in the eye of the beholder, that we Brits love a loser and are only willing to acknowledge politicians' finer qualities once they have been toppled from their plinths. But I don't think so. These politicians really have changed. We haven't invented the fact that they once mouthed vacuous party mantras like automatons, or, rock-like in the knowledge of their own righteousness, proved to be about as open to constructive criticism as the Pope. And then there is the embarrassing little matter of the policies these men either introduced or endorsed . . .

I think the answer lies elsewhere. First, ambition is a nasty, nasty thing. A man who believes that fate has tapped him on the shoulder is usually a man at his worst: ruthless and self-obsessed, taken over by his superego. "Policy-making is about compromise, not absolutes," he tells himself, as he sacrifices yet another moral principle on the altar of self-advancement. It is only when he realises that history has moved on, that he - like most mortals - is destined to rise no higher than the post of interesting also-ran, that his humanity and critical faculties re-emerge.

Second, success comes with noxious trappings. The higher someone rises, the more family members and ambitious colleagues cling to his coat-tails. Soon the politician wearies of the game, but needs to keep playing because the livelihoods of too many depend upon it. Once his job is lost, those hangers-on suddenly peel away, finally leaving him free to say what he truly believes.

No wonder the failed politician always seems so at ease with himself, so bien dans sa peau, as the French would say: clear of brow and conscience. When it comes to the life of power, nothing - as was said of the executed Cawdor in Macbeth - so becomes a man as the leaving of it.

I must remind myself of that fact every time my hand jerks convulsively in the direction of the "off" button during the BBC's Question Time. Poor dears: they can't help themselves, and one day - when they have done us all a favour by failing in their lives' ambitions - they might do something really worthwhile.

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Latin America rises up