John Walsh: When leaders suffer a Lear moment

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As Laurent Gbagbo hid in his Abidjan bunker yesterday, waiting for the end, did he think it was all worth it? Thirteen hundred people dead, 130,000 Ivorians fled to Liberia, a million more displaced, blood-crazed gangs roaming the streets – and all because of a man who couldn't leave the power chair when his time was up.

When the general election last November revealed that Mr Gbagbo's rival, Alassane Ouattara, had won with 54.1 per cent of the vote, Mr Gbagbo made his Constitutional Council rule that some votes in the northern regions were null and void (which is like the loser in a UK election saying that votes cast in Durham don't count) and therefore he'd won. But was it worth all the killings and fleeings and gangster mayhem to remain in power for those four months? Could his continuing access to Ivory Coast dollars, limousines, cigars and the breakfast buffet at the presidential palace justify all the trouble it caused?

It's quite a syndrome, the head of state who doesn't accept that he's outvoted, surplus to requirements, no longer wanted. Mr Mubarak sat it out in Cairo for a while, promising "reforms" (that uniquely hollow word) but finally giving in. Colonel Gaddafi ignored the popular view that he should consider his position, and hired African mercenaries (or "troops loyal to..." in that much-employed phrase that cries out for the word "inexplicably" to be inserted between "troops" and "loyal") to shoot protesters. Robert Mugabe delayed the results of the 2008 presidential election in Zimbabwe for five weeks because he couldn't believe that he might lose; and when they showed that he'd come second, instead of going quietly he employed the unusual electoral strategy known as Operation CIBD (meaning Coercion, Intimidation, Beating, Displacement). Even now that the army is running the country, he's still there, hanging on to a threadbare presidency.

We could call it the Sun King syndrome – the belief that "L'État, c'est moi." "I am the nation, its heart and soul," runs this line of thinking, "and if I go, the country will be terminally damaged. Therefore, I must not go, for the good of all." But Louis XIV didn't actually say that. On his deathbed he said, "Je m'en vais, mais l'État demeurera toujours", or "I'm going, but the state will always remain" – a proposition with which Messrs Gbagbo, Gaddafi and Mugabe wouldn't agree at all.

Should we call it WG Grace syndrome? Grace retired from first-class cricket at 60 because he was too old and too bulky to run. But he still played minor-league matches and enjoyed drawing the crowds. In one match, he was clean-bowled, middle stump, early in his innings but refused to go. "They've come to see me bat, not you bowl," Grace told the man who had got him out. I suspect Mr Gbagbo may be labouring under the same impression, that whatever the election or the constitution might say, his people want to see him in power rather than some loser who acquired some "votes".

Or is it King Lear syndrome? Unlike his modern-day avatars, Lear actually wanted to retire, and leave his kingdom to his two loving daughters. But he thought he would somehow still be king, still be treated with deference and loyalty. Instead, his daughters treated him like dirt and threw his entourage of soldiers out of the house, whereupon Lear went mad. He could hand over the government of his kingdom, but not the aura and trappings of royalty that brought him respect. Was it simply the fear of being a nobody – a "poor, bare, forked animal" on a blasted heath – that kept Mr Gbagbo clamped to his throne, even as the helicopter gunships were moving in?

Carrying roof tiles up a ladder: that's an internship

Nick Clegg, keen to ban the practice of unpaid "internships" in his party offices, condemns the "tacit conspiracy" of well-connected parents getting their children intern jobs in top companies and starting them off on the career ladder with an unfair advantage. If only such corruption had been around in my day. My father, a local GP in Battersea, south London, secured my first internship for me at 18 with one of his patients, an enormous, 18-stone Irish handyman called Pat Dempsey. With him I built a wooden fence outside a local library, painted a transformer, creosoted a shed roof and cleared out the flats of recently deceased Battersea old folk. I think I was paid a fiver a day.

Our relationship reached a critical point when I was helping Pat carry roof tiles up a ladder. At the top of the ladder, he froze. "I cannot move," he said, his voice shaking. "Gets to me sometimes. Run down the off-licence, willya, and get me a half-bottla Jameson."

It was true. A tiler by trade, Mr Dempsey suffered from chronic and crippling acrophobia, which could be alleviated only by whisky. I dashed to the off-licence, bought the stuff, dashed back and climbed up behind him. Only when he had drunk enough did he summon sufficient courage to descend. But I'd decided I had had enough interning. So my early, parentally sanctioned, privileged step on the career ladder was exactly that: it was on a ladder.

Maybe Lefebvre should stick to Victor Hugo Boss?

Asked at a book fair last week to name his favourite book, Frédéric Lefebvre, one of President Sarkozy's young ministers, confidently replied: "Without doubt, Zadig et Voltaire. It is a lesson about life, and I dip into it often." Possibly he was thinking of Voltaire's famous work Zadig, or The Book of Life. Or maybe he just really likes expensive European clothing shops. But one should not be too hard on the philistine M. Lefebvre. Anyone could make a similar blunder. Why, I myself have always had a soft spot for The Primark of Miss Jean Brodie, Room at the Topshop, and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens & Jones.

j.walsh@independent.co.uk

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