National Portrait: Helen Clark, gunning for top UN job

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark in her New York apartment.
HELEN KLISSER DURING

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark in her New York apartment.

Helen Clark sounds tickled pink when she's told about the "Auntie Helen for #SG" T-shirt knocking around on Trade Me.

"Ha ha," comes the trademark guffaw that was so instantly recognisable during her nine-year reign as prime minister.

It is just days since Prime Minister John Key announced the Government had formally nominated for Clark for the United Nations top job and the outpouring of support is as unexpected as it has been overwhelming.

You can even support Helen Clark's nomination for UN Secretary General by sporting this t-shirt.

You can even support Helen Clark's nomination for UN Secretary General by sporting this t-shirt.

Hundreds of thousands of "likes" on social media, former political opponents uniting in support of the bid, and some of Clark's most trenchant former critics in the Right-wing commentariat  backing her whole-heartedly as the best woman for the job of UN secretary general.  Heck, even the Aussies are openly talking about backing her over one of their own, Kevin Rudd.


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The "Clark for #SG" hashtag seems to have united the country in a common patriotic cause in a way the polarising flag debate never managed.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark in her New York apartment.
HELEN KLISSER DURING

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark in her New York apartment.

This must be a moment to savour for Clark, a reminder of those early years in power, when she was a hugely popular leader of a popular government, before the tide turned and voters tired of "Auntie Helen's" government and got belligerent about badly-behaved ministers and "nanny state" outrages.

Time heals all wounds as they say.  And Clark has earned respect - even among those who didn't agree with her politics - for the way she moved on from defeat.

She grabbed at the next rung in the ladder, taking a job as number three at the United Nations in New York, and assiduously working her way toward this week's announcement about a shot at the top job. 

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark during a recent trip back home.
HELEN KLISSER DURING

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark during a recent trip back home.

It helps that she's also earned kudos there, overhauling a creaking organisation, imposing efficiencies and shaking things up by being accessible 24/7 via social media.We all like to see a fellow Kiwi do well on the international stage, after all.

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And in the intervening years, Clark has remained a loyal Kiwi.

She still gets homesick whenever she hears a waiata - something to do with the fact that as prime minister she used to hear a lot of them, Clark says. Hearing that waiata is a very Kiwi moment for her.

It may have been six yeas, meanwhile, and she might live the life of a New Yorker -  her apartment with its view of the Manhattan skyline, attending plays and the opera, visiting museums, eating out, and spending time with the few close friends she has made there in between her international duties -  but don't dare call her a local.

 "I'm not a local. I consider myself an international. I mean, when I go home to Cromwell St Mt Eden, or Waihi Beach, that's where I consider myself a local. I'm camping in New York like I used to camp in Premier House ... but isn't there an old saying about home is where the heart is?"

If that's true, then home is still very much the 100-year-old villa in Mt Eden she shares with husband Peter Davis, and the family home at Waihi beach, where she pops back often to visit her 94-year-old father George.

Not much has changed at Mt Eden since she left six years ago though there is one new addition, courtesy of  Peter, who has remained in New Zealand for work, and commutes to New York when he can.

The new addition is a mural depicting his wife as Superwoman flying over New York. Clark snorts that she was "horrified" when she first saw it on the garden wall.

"It's completely over the top."

But Davis must have nerves of steel because the mural is still there, Clark is forced to admit.

"It's a bit of fun," she laughs.

Clark was back home again earlier this month; ostensibly to see family and look after her father, who has been ill. 

But it was also a chance to pow wow with Key and lay her cards on the table about having a shot at the big job. Freshly returned from the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington and talks with world leaders, Key would have briefed her on which way the winds were blowing on Clark's biggest obstacle, the push to install an Eastern European candidate. 

The time with family was important, however, before Clark throws herself into what will be an exhausting and all-consuming contest.

After telling her father about her intentions, Clark  retreated to the kitchen where she cooked up a storm, bagging and freezing more than 100 casserole and slow-cooker meals to tide him over till her next trip home.

"Dad's always been good at cooking his vegetables but you know left to his own devices he'd probably fry up a bit of steak or a sausage and you can't do that every night, so he has plenty of meals there."

Close friends say Clark has always fussed about doing her bit for her father, even though there are family close by to help him out.

But maybe it's because Clark knows that if successful at the UN bid it will be another five years before she's home.

George would be knocking 100 and she would be in her 70s by then.

But she is incredulous at suggestions that might be time to retire. That's something she hasn't even bothered to think about, Clark says.

"I've always focused on what's the immediate task at hand."

 

 

 - Stuff

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