There are not that many circumstances in which I feel sympathy for that collection of individuals, mainly male, described as ‘world leaders.’
They have reached the top in their chosen path; they have support systems which make their lives, whatever the scale of pressure on them and their time, run fairly smoothly; above all they have power, and with it the ability to make a difference to their countries and to the world.
To be fair to Tony Blair, he was not a big whinger, and on the rare occasions he did complain about his lot, (usually because he had too many meetings and events packed into his diary) he would respond very well to an utterly non-sympathetic ‘what do you have to moan about?’ rejoinder.
There were two sets of circumstances in which my somewhat brutal approach might be softened by sympathy. The first was illness. The second was events which required him to be woken in the middle of the night. Both sets of circumstances were rare, but with regard to the first, even the fittest come down with colds and bugs every now and then – I remember a particularly hectic trip to the Gulf in which he spent every spare moment groaning his desire to go to bed or to the loo. You would never have known it from the smiling photocalls with Gulf leaders.
On the second, again these were few in number, related to terrorism or war, with the exception of Princess Diana’s death.
So yesterday I felt sympathy for President Obama on both counts. He has a cold. And he had his first Presidential middle of the night wakening, to be told of the North Korean missile launch.
What a week. I mean, I know being President of the United States is a big job, but no wonder he has a cold. First London and the G20, to save the world economy, sort a new arms deal with Russia, set up new relations with the Chinese and a few somewhat smaller powers, meet the Queen and generally come to terms with being the most watched politician on the planet; then Strasbourg for the Nato Summit, to try to sort a future for Afghanistan, stop the Turks de-railing the new Nato Secretary General, de-ruffle French and German feathers and make sure Michelle and Carla get along ok, make a speech to a crowd the likes of which many professional footballers never get to see, then on to Prague to spell out a vision of a world without nuclear arms.
And then to bed, carrying that very human hope that a few hours sleep would see off the cold that was beginning to undermine even his extraordinary voice.
Sleep, colds, bugs, making sure the wife is ok … these people are just human beings in the end. The big difference with most human beings is the intensity of scrutiny, and the scale of the decisions they take.
So try to imagine being him. An official (who was probably also asleep and had to be woken to wake the President) nudges him awake, trying not to awake Michelle. Once the President is alert, he is told what has happened. He has to make an instant judgement about what to do next. I would be surprised if it did not cross his mind, even for a second, that the Koreans were acting in part in response to the optimistic noises he had made in his Prague speech. Does he get up and get properly briefed? Once he is briefed, are there any decisions he has to make right now? When should he say something? When should the White House say something on his behalf? Does anyone have an aspirin?
It appears that he did get up, and he did spend considerable time on the telephone getting briefed by his colleagues in Washington.
Modern leadership in government is a mixture of the strategic and the tactical. Obama clearly has a good understanding of both. My favourite part of his Prague speech was when he said ‘I’m not naive. This goal [of ridding the world of nuclear weapons] will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now, we too must ignore the voices who tell us the world cannot change.’
It carried echoes of his ‘yes we can’ campaign. But as New York Governor Mario Cuomo said, we campaign in poetry and we govern in prose. There were few more poetic campaigns than Obama’s There is nothing more prosaic than a headcold. But the real prose is of hard events coming in, carrying with them the threat of crowding out your strategy, like being woken in the night to be told one of the world’s bad boys has done something bad.
Sympathy won’t get him very far, though I felt it. Far more important was the confidence I felt that he was making the right calls, no matter the lack of sleep or that horrible fuzzy feeling even Presidents get when the cold is making up its mind whether to go away or become a full-blown eye-running, nose-dripping, throat-choking virus.
My money’s on the voice being back to its best in no time.