The real Helen Clark

Helen Clark, 1973: She liked to think of her look as 'Edwardian'.
Photo: Fairfax Archive
Helen Clark, 1973: She liked to think of her look as 'Edwardian'.

She went from 'sex bomb' trade unionist to 'very dour' Labour leader in her quest for credibility. In this exclusive extract from his unauthorised biography of Helen Clark, Denis Welch reveals the person behind the politician.

If I had $10 for every time someone who's met  Helen Clark has said to me, "Oh, but she's so  different in person!" I'd be a rich man now. In  her years in public office it became commonplace to say that close up and personal she  seemed softer, lighter, smaller even; more  feminine; more inclined to laugh and joke.

And  with such a lovely complexion. Stated or unstated, the corollary of these observations  was that the Clark you saw on TV, in parliament, or at media conferences was bigger,  harder, heavier, more mannish. People would  often go on to lament that we didn't see more  of the private Clark in public.

In 2009, Helen Clark's view is global as head of the UN Development Programme.
Photo: UN
In 2009, Helen Clark's view is global as head of the UN Development Programme.

The implication  tended to be that with male leaders like, say,  Muldoon, Lange and Bolger, what you got in  private was generally what you got in public -  and that Clark must therefore be adopting a  pose.

Well, wouldn't you? If you wanted to succeed as a woman in politics? Allowing yourself to come across as even a tiny bit "feminine", in the usual sense of the word, is fatal to such a career.

"What do women politicians fear most? They fear not being taken seriously. The fear of being trivialised." That's Clark herself in a 1994 interview with Bill Ralston.

"So from the time I came in," she went on, "I approached the job rather overseriously and that left its public impression. Very dour, very sour, very dry. All these sorts of things. Shaking that off as you become more secure in what you're doing is not so easy."

Eugenie Sage was Clark's press secretary when she was Minister of Housing 1987-89. "Helen was perceived in the media as a bit cold and aloof," says Sage, "but when she spoke at state house openings there would be so many tenants taking her by the arm and wanting to show her their places it would be hard to get away. There was a huge personal warmth and empathy here and in dealing with constituent queries that the media somehow didn't pick up on."

Sage attributes much of the misperception to male-dominated media, some of whom were "quite misogynist".

From the outset, Clark also had to put up with cracks about lesbianism - both of her personally and of her friends, colleagues and staff. The phrase "lesbian mafia" - a common taunt during her years at the top - conveyed an image of power-hungry dykes conspiring against the public good for their own perverted ends. Yet, quite apart from the irrelevance of the criticism, it's fair to note that male leaders since time began have surrounded themselves with male cronies - and that has been taken to be "normal", so natural as to be part of the political wallpaper.

In 2007, for instance, Michael Bassett wrote that Clark had very successfully ridden the "international wave of female empowerment that has dominated the last 30 years".

Now there's nothing sinister in that, though critics like Bassett often contrive to make it seem so. But how often do we hear it said that Robert Muldoon, say, rode the international wave of male empowerment that had dominated the previous 30 centuries?

In today's terms, Clark's most illustrious predecessor, the revered Michael Joseph Savage, had a very curious home life, never marrying, never even having a serious relationship with a woman, and living as a boarder with an elderly couple throughout his premiership.

It was scarcely considered an issue at the time, nor is it now, and it didn't stop Savage from becoming the best-loved leader this country has ever had. Yet Clark has had to put up with a more or less ceaseless stream of innuendo aimed not just at her but at her husband too, not to mention comment by the yard on every little shift in her appearance.

It seems typical of the very persona adopted by Clark the politician that she herself has discouraged the idea that women are especially targeted. For someone in her position to do that would, of course, be to invite the sneering male response "Diddums!".

So we should not be surprised that she once expressed sympathy for Bolger and Lange over the hammering they got from the media, and at the same time asseverated: "I don't think it's very different for women. There is a difference in the kind of criticism.

Once they decide to go for you they go in ways they wouldn't go for men. So they'll go for your clothes and your haircut and that sort of silly stuff. But in the end I'm not sure it's more poisonous, it's just a different kind of poison from what would be applied to male politicians."

Actually, leaving aside the coiffure, the clothes and the closet gay carry-on, Helen Clark has probably been the most culturally sophisticated and physically active prime minister New Zealand has ever had.

She went to the opera house and to the mountaintop.

She knew her Brahms from her Beethoven and her pitons from her crampons.

She played the piano and went cross-country skiing - though not, mercifully, at the same time. Her outdoor pursuits did attract some media attention, but one has the feeling they'd have got a lot more had she been a man.

As a young woman, Clark, by her own admission, was not much interested in clothes. Ralston, who was at university with her, recalls that "her hair was quite long, usually tied back, along with a woolly sweater, a plaid skirt, sensible shoes".

In the late 70s, as a career in politics beckoned, her friend Cath Tizard encouraged her to make herself more presentable.

In the early 1980s she favoured a vaguely safarical look, appearing in photos in almost military-style shirts, with buttoned breast pocket and sleeve flaps, and scarves knotted cravat-style at the neck.

A certain likeness to the country's first woman MP, Elizabeth McCombs, was commented on. Clark professed to be flattered, saying that she probably did have "slightly Edwardian looks".

The number of people who remember her by her boots is extraordinary. Trade unionist Matt McCarten's first memory of Clark is when she came to the old Hotel Workers Union building in Auckland in the early 80s and ran a seminar.

"She was dressed all in black," he says, "and had big black boots."

Fellow unionist Laila Harre, in turn, recalls a 1985 party where young men were "salivating over Helen Clark and her boots".

McCarten: "She was a sex bomb!"

Harre: "She was, actually - from a left-wing point of view. We don't have very high standards!"

It was after the 1990 election that Clark decided to get at least the semblance of a life outside politics.

"In the early years," she acknowledged several years later, "I probably put too much time into the job, but I rectified that in the 1990s and I've done a lot of things I really wanted to do, got involved in a lot of my personal interests and haven't let the job crowd that out."

She'd often gone tramping in her student days, and one year joined the university ski club, but by the time she became a cabinet minister in 1987 she was listing her personal interests as badminton, tennis, films, theatre and concerts.

Clearly she felt less than fully physically challenged, because it was after 1990 that she seriously took up cross-country skiing and began working out regularly at the gym.

She also set herself to learn Spanish, polishing up her pronunciation one summer with a holiday in Madrid.

Every year she tried to spend a month out of the country: Europe (particularly Switzerland and Sweden) and Central and South America were favourite destinations. She and husband Peter Davis invariably saw his parents in England during these trips.

Not instinctively, one feels, a team-sport person, she nonetheless made a point of keeping up with rugby league in Auckland; and if New Zealand pride was at stake in any sport, she'd be right there: remember how she flew to Dublin to (successfully) make New Zealand's case for hosting the 2011 Rugby World Cup?

When New Zealand was trying to win the America's Cup, she would text skipper Grant Dalton during the rounds off the coast of Spain.

"I always found that quite amazing, that she would find time in her busy schedule to do that," says Dalton, who avers that without her "fantastic and unwavering" support, Team New Zealand would never have survived to fight another day.

"I found her, and still do to this day, accessible, friendly, incredibly smart and immensely knowledgeable . . . and I really, really mean that sincerely - I'm not just saying that."

He never felt, Dalton says, that he was dealing with someone who had no affinity with the sport of yachting. When he got back to New Zealand from Spain he had dinner with Clark at Bellamy's, seeking some government funding for the next cup campaign.

He was nervous too. "I got about halfway through the pitch and she said, 'Whatever - but what I want to know is, why did you go around the right mark instead of the left in the third race on the second run?"'

Not that she neglects the head stuff. She usually went on holiday with "10 copies of the Guardian Weekly and four novels in a bag".

She likes Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, has read most of John le Carre's spy novels, and also used to make a point of reading the Booker Prize winner each year.

Despite her long involvement in the arts, however, in 2000 she admitted with some embarrassment that she'd read hardly any New Zealand literature.

She blamed it partly on her education: "Through all my years at school - and I did English 1 at university - I can't remember ever studying a New Zealand novel. Not even Man Alone.

Not even at Stage One! It was W. H. Auden and Robert Graves and the war poets and Sassoon." She read Dostoyevsky, though, and if memory doesn't deceive I once came across her working her way through War and Peace, possibly as research for a speech criticising National's defence policy.

As Leader of the Opposition she spent an entire summer holiday reading Vikram Seth's mega-novel A Suitable Boy. Being well-read herself, she encouraged others to write well and was notorious among her staff for correcting punctuation in letters, even going so far as to instruct officials not to start sentences with "however".

Clark never wanted a child. "It's inconceivable that I would become pregnant," she said perceptively in 1986.

By then she had been taking the Pill for years. Her definitive statement on the subject came in Making Policy Not Tea, the 1993 book about women MPs, in which she said bluntly: "Having children has never been something I've wanted to do because I value my personal space and privacy too highly. I cannot think of the sort of life I would want to have where I would want to give up those things for children.

"I've observed many friends and relatives with children over many years, and nothing that I've seen has led me to change my mind. I don't think it's just this job. I think that anything I did I would have been very busy, and when I wasn't putting a lot into it I would have wanted personal space for myself.

"The other thing is, I spend my whole life working with and on behalf of people. I can't go to work and just shut the door on people and their concerns: that is the job. I take my hat off to people who can add families and family concerns on top of that, but I just don't think I could happily do it."

That she remained (understandably) sensitive about allusions to the subject was evident in 1998, when Maori Affairs Minister Tau Henare responded to a question she asked in the House about why he hadn't attended the launch of a group home-building scheme.

Henare said that he'd promised long ago to spend three days with his children at that time - and "I'm not going to break a promise to my family and my children. It's something that the Leader of the Opposition wouldn't have any idea what that means".

Clark asked for his apology and withdrawal; Speaker Doug Kidd said the comments were not out of order but that members shouldn't bring family affairs into debate.

A few months later, she said she found political opponent's references to her childlessness "a bit pathetic really".

As indeed they were.

Even other women were not immune to taunting her about it. Though she'd appeared with National's Jenny Shipley on an episode of Shortland Street in 1996, the relationship appeared to deteriorate once Shipley became Prime Minister, thus beating Clark to the coveted title of "New Zealand's first woman prime minister".

After Shipley called her "the spinster of New Zealand politics", Clark hit back with this: "From the time she became leader of the National Party I have been subjected to constant attack by her and the National Party in coded terms for not having children." By contrast, she said, "[Jim] Bolger, as we know, had a large family, was proud of them, never sought to use it for personal advantage in any way and never ever cast a personal aspersion on me, ever."

As to the low voice - if you must know - she once confided to an interviewer, presumably in a low voice, that she'd had a lot of allergies "and to have something constantly dripping on your vocal cords makes the voice low".

Sunday Star Times