Lessons from the Top, By Gavin Esler

The Newsnight presenter examines why some political leaders succeed and others fail.

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The Independent Culture

History's sworn enemies often have more in common with one another than either would care to admit. Think Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington, Hitler and Stalin, or George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden.

George Dubya had the worst kind of family background for a presidential candidate who purported to be the folksy voice of Middle America. He was born and nurtured at the top end of the East Coast elite. His grandfather was a rich senator. His father, who was successively, head of the CIA, Vice President and President, is said to have had a chauffeur to drive him to school during the Great Depression. In his youth, Dubya had a history of drunkenness and under achievement.

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Yet he pulled off the feat of persuading American voters that his heart was in Midland, Texas, where he imbued the values of hard up, hard working Middle America. Even the problems he experienced speaking coherent English contributed to his 'one of us' image. He came across as perhaps a slightly dim but nice guy, when in reality he was clever but not so nice.

Osama bin Laden was born into one of the richest families in Saudi Arabia, where rich means truly, filthy rich. In the 1990s, he had an office in Oxford Street. During the latter part of his life, he lived comfortably with his wives in a huge fortified compound near a military base in Pakistan, under the protection of elements of Pakistan's security services.

Yet when he showed himself to the outside world, through videos posted to Arab news networks or during his rare interviews with sympathetic correspondents, he would be seen either dressed in flowing robes, mounted perhaps on a white Arab steed, or sitting on bare earth "rather like a religious hermit, except for the Kalashnikov rifle resting on his knee." Before each photo-shoot, bin Laden would make the cave suitably furnished with books and weaponry.

Thus bin Laden squashed the negatives in his life story as billionaire's son from a corrupt oil state, to allow his adoring followers to see what they wanted to see – an ascetic, militant Muslim holy man.

Gavin Esler has used both cases as illustrations of what makes some political leaders succeed where others, like Gordon Brown, fail. The successful ones give off clear messages that tell who they are, who their potential followers are, and where they are going, and squash or adapt the negative stories that their opponents tell about them. Sometimes they need to do something unexpected that 'violates expectations.' A supreme example of that was Bill and Hillary Clinton appearing side by side on television to respond to early revelation s about Bill's gargantuan sexual appetite – not to deny that he was a philanderer, but to turn his philandering into a story about a devoted couple facing up to problems within their marriage, as so many American couples have to do.

There have been a vast number of books written since the emergence of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair about the masters of self-presentation and the spin doctors and hidden persuaders they employ. Sometimes the tone of these studies is breathlessly admiring; more often it is condemnatory. Esler aims to be analytic. He does not take up space condemning bin Laden's murderous activities, for example, except to remark in passing that his presentational skills were "chilling". His focus is not on what leaders do when in power but how they get there.

This makes it a tantalising book. The blurb on the back promises a "fascinating insider's view of modern leadership" , while on the front there is the familiar face of the veteran Newsnight presenter who covered US politics for the BBC for many years, inviting the expectation that this is a broadcaster's memoir of his years in television, or a study of modern politics by someone who has seen the powerful close up.

It is neither. It is an essay for a specific market. In the USA, there is an academic discipline called 'leadership studies', whose students are evidently Esler's target audience. For their benefit, each chapter opens with a paragraph summarising the contents, and ends with a summary of the 'leadership lesson' and 'fellowship lesson' that the chapter contains. It is also, presumably, to avoid discombobulating US readers that Esler calls Brown a 'finance minister' rather than Chancellor.

This focus means that the book is short on stories from Esler's own long career, which is simultaneously to his credit, because too many broadcasters talk about little else but themselves, and disappointing. He tells one very funny story about a Sky TV journalist who was crawling on hands and knees across a studio until Margaret Thatcher told him: "You stupid boy, do get up off the floor!". There must be others he could have told. Naturally, he devotes a chapter to showing how Thatcher 'violated expectations' by projecting herself as tougher than the men who surrounded her, though for some reason, Esler thinks that her 'Iron Lady' image was just another of those stories leaders tell about themselves, like Dubya's pretence that he was a small town boy from Texas.

Far from being the unbending ideologue she purported to be, "she wobbled on the question of the pound shadowing the Deutschmark, vacillated between the views of her Chancellor of the Exchequer and her unofficial advisers, and dropped the much-hated poll tax…" he writes.

The first of those two assertions would surprise her former Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, who resigned precisely because she refused to 'vacillate' over whether to tie the pound to other European currencies. The second is simply untrue. The poll tax was still in force when she resigned.

However, should you happen to be a young person with dreams of being a charismatic political leader, or should you merely want to know how these people persuaded others to see them as they saw themselves, Esler can tell you a lot, in only 250 pages.