Cloaks of power in Parliament House
Sara Polk was desperately concerned that her husband lacked presence. This may not have mattered for most people but it represented a fatal flaw if your husband happened to be the President of the United States.
Measuring 5 feet 8 inches and ranking in the 10 shortest presidents of all time evidently Sara was concerned that her husband James – the 11th American President – lacked stature and accordingly was not receiving the respect that was his due.
How could the masses bow down before her man when they had no idea which man he was?
And so she conceived a unique solution. Whenever James appeared the United States Marine Corps Band would play a song – Hail to the Chief – so that the assembled would know that greatness had just entered the room.
It worked a treat.
James’ sense of insecurity evaporated and to this day the tradition continues.
It is a notable example of the way our leaders are decorated with the adornments of high office: little formalities that give an office prestige and the office holder a kick start. So no matter how ordinary a person may be, once they are bejewelled with the cloak of power they appear extraordinary.
In a place infinitely further down the food chain, I have encountered my own minor version of the cloak.
An important ornament on the cloak is the manner of address. For me that has always been clear. Just ask my son’s friends who happily call me Richard with all the formality of a footy trip.
Yet soon after my election I was ushered into my new office by an official from the Department of Finance who said:
“Mr Marles, here are the keys …”
I turned around thinking that my father must have come to meet me on my first day in the job for he was the only Mr Marles I knew.
“And Mr Marles here is a folder that explains the procedures …”
She was talking to me!
“Oh please, just call me Richard.”
“I am sorry I can’t do that Mr Marles. It’s government policy.”
I was all for wearing the cloak of power but this cloak was making me feel like I was prematurely 60.
Over the last month Prime Ministerial language has been put in the spotlight – references to sauce bottles causing a mini sh*t-storm. The inquisitors charge the PM with not being real. But how do we marry reality with the expectations we have of those who wear the cloak – particularly the Prime-Ministerial cloak?
Well as it happens I have known the man experiencing that cloak for many years prior to him ever putting it on. To be sure, watching a friend become the Prime Minister is exciting but it comes with some confusion.
In the very first caucus meeting after the election, the very first question asked of Kevin started thus:
“Kevin … I mean PM … er, Mr Prime Minister …”
“Just call me Kevin.”
Now that is a breach of Government policy according to the parliamentary website which specifically states that the way to address the man is “Prime Minister”.
So when I first saw him after the election I had to make a choice between the formality of the website or the Prime Ministerial edict. I went with the website.
“Richard, none of that crap … It’s Kevin.”
To those who accuse the PM of not being real this insistence on being called Kevin was not done for the cameras. And all of us who have had a coffee with him know that the Aussie vernacular bubbles just beneath the surface.
However we see our mandarin speaking PM, the man sees himself as just Kevin from Queensland.
And so here is a curious fact about the cloak of power. It is not always the office holder who wants to wear it or have to conform with the persona the rest of us imagine comes with it. Sometimes it’s the people around him– like Mrs Polk – that just love to see it worn.
So be it that it makes you feel old, or is a constant reminder that you are 5ft 8in, or simply that it gets in the way, the cloak of power comes with a little sting in the tail.
It may be a thing of beauty but occasionally it can just feel a little less comfortable than it looks.
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