Since I encountered an intriguing article on Genghis Khan, which seemed to me to prove that he was one of the first great leaders to employ a publicist, and posted a link to it on Twitter, there have been quite a number of responses suggesting that Jesus, Pliny, Alexander the Great and Moses all employed publicists first.
Regardless, the story of Khan single-handedly wiping out 1,748,000 people in one hour has lasted for generations (click here to read the full article). All good leaders need good PR – and whoever cooked up that bit of spin was amongst the best and greatest. There is, as the saying goes, nothing more dismal than a fact.
But if history has judged Genghis Khan to be legendary, how will history treat Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron? What will they have done to create a legend. Tony Blair was patently eager to leave a legacy, and may leave telltale traces for historians if he’s lucky, but the leaders contesting this election have no compelling story, no legend. At every turn, each one of them – and their advisers – sandpaper away the interesting impulses that lead to great stories accreting around a person.
The extraordinary number of extremists who rushed to claim responsibility for the Times Square bomb plot is a good example of people throwing caution to the wind – the failed bombing will end up being remembered simply because of the amount of people wanting to have done it. What have Brown, Clegg and Cameron done that someone else would try to claim for themselves, however? What have they done that a publicist worth his salt could transform from history into legend?
David and SamCam’s 1000 mile pic op trek? No. Cameron’s urgent attempts to prove himself fit and healthy? No. Gordon and Sarah on the GMTV sofa? Not a chance. Clegg? Started well then faded into the middle ground along with the rest of them. Unfortunately, all three leaders have been forced into a little huddle in the middle ground, making nice and not making mistakes if they can possibly help it.
The closest anyone’s come to changing his reputation (and not in the way the media hoped) is Brown during Bigotgate – polls suggest that it hasn’t affected him all that badly. Indeed, he’s running through the last few days of the election rather invigorated. I believe that the electorate are yearning for someone or something with a bit of edge. They want politicians like John Prescott to lash out and prove they’re human, people who will “fail better next time”.
I’d suggest that the spin-doctors on all sides need to be looking to Genghis Khan and whoever sold the – obviously ridiculous but utterly compelling – story of killing 1,748,000 people in one hour to the world for a way of making their leader legendary. If someone can come up with a phrase as neat as “a little to the right of Genghis Khan” that applies to Cameron, Clegg or Brown, they will be earning their money. A good PR is essential to a modern leader. Hitler had a great spin doctor in Goebbels and we’re unlikely to forget him.
It would be preferable, of course, if Cameron, Clegg or Brown could find a way to do great and memorable things without resorting to killing millions of people. We all know that cuts are coming, that the coming years will be hard. Any leader who wants their reputation to survive the next five years, let alone the next 500, will need a compelling story to tell to the voters about the changes they will have to make.