Classic Ellis: Obama in Canberra

Wednesday, 16 November, 2011

Our sniper’s eye view of him, very thin, surprisingly tall and a little stooped and melancholy below us in the courtyard and then smiling and waving upward as we watched from the Minister’s window and he got in the car and smiled and waved upward again from behind black bullet-proof glass, was all we saw of him in on that first day, a long time ago it seems already, now that he’s gone.

Three hours before that we’d seen the firing guns and heard a second later the shattering noise as the smoke obliterated Parliament House and a misty thin rain listlessly drizzled. We were standing among two thousand other patchwork eccentrics on what I whispered to Joel was the Grassy Knoll, watching the soldiers distantly parade and the brass band play unheard and the big black cars foregather and wondering which one was the always attendant ambulance and which the official ice cream van, and whom in Christ’s name the fighter jets roaring overhead imagined they were protecting him from - Gundagai scuds, I suppose.

There was a giant airborne plastic marijuana joint floating above us and a Legalise Marijuana banner flapping and what seemed the world’s oldest Nimbin hippy (grey stubble, brown horse’s tail) portentously declaring Obama was “a serious marihuana user when young” and beseeching him to make it legal now and do commercials for it, in his studio perhaps in Byron Bay. Joel showed him his ‘Obama in ’08′ tattoo and he was very impressed and photographed it.

Eventually the barriers went down and we laboured up the hill and got into Parliament House and were escorted by a big, strapping girl down corridors past phalanx after phalanx of American coppers all sworn, I guess, to take a bullet for him, and up the stairs and hung round Shorten’s increasingly crowded office drinking beer and eating crisps with a goodly number of the Right and their wives who preferred champagne. The office girls were very keen on the Visitor and one of them said, “If Barack asked me for any reason to go to Bali with him, I’d say to my boyfriend, if I’m not back in two years, it’s over.”

Chloe Shorten, watching the television, likewise envied her mother the GG’s lingering handshake with him on the airfield and tartly noted that “she’s worn three different colours in an hour”. She herself then changed her dress three times in the toilet, preparatory to the dinner, undecided.

Joel and I sat on the floor and watched the press conference on television while everyone above us voluminously ignored it, talking of other, more pressing factional matters. On screen the Prime Minister seemed awed, overcome and choking with emotion as she introduced him but we were afterwards told that Obama had run up the stairs, a cheery athletic habit of his, and she had obediently run after him, with shorter legs in higher heels, trying to keep up with him, and ended gasping and stumbling and began her effusive introduction before she’d caught her breath.

And then he spoke, and was very impressive. Not just because he was announcing a new Cold War on China but because of what someone called his “luminous professionalism”, pushing through jet-lag and ceremonial gunfire and bugle blowing and flesh-pressing that handsome forceful tranquillity and self-mockery that formed his particular magnetism, that quality of leadership which, in my phrase, “both excites and relaxes you”. For watching him we knew we were in good hands, although he proposed troop-movements as menacing to the Chinese as two thousand crack Chinese troops ‘rotating’ through Port Moresby and doing ‘exercises’ on Lord Howe would be to us.

We watched the president get into his car and took our cross-hair shots and the invitees went downstairs and we drank more beer. And so it went. It was noted that Kamahl had got his long-sought invitation to the dinner through Shorten’s intervention, it seemed, after anguished beseechments from the Liberal Senator John Williams, so the two Nat King Cole impersonators - one musical, one political - would soon meet and speak of their similar diasporic origins (Tamil, Malaysia; American, Indonesia) and sing Old Man River in duet if they had a mind to. I’d warned Kamahl that his having sung at a benefit for John Howard who had called Obama a ‘friend of terrorists’ might prove an impediment to his latest high-vaulting social ascension, but there he was, in the room, as always.

John McTernan joined us, and we talked for a while. He was an Adelaide Thinker In Residence, a Gordon Brown backroomer and the original, some said, of the smaller explosive Scotsman in In The Loop and The Thick Of It, and Julia’s media advisor now. I asked him if he had ever, in fact, attacked and destroyed office machinery and he said, ‘only when I was angry.’ Joel asked him if Gillard Labor could win, and he said, ‘There’s a narrow path to victory if we can stay on it. Outright victory. But it’s very, very narrow, and it’s the only one.’ He then started texting absorbedly and we watched the Dinner.

Abbott was very good, recounting how the word ‘Liberal’ meant something different in America and his hosts there forbade him contact with any Republicans and intriduced him only to elderly, clapped-out Communists. Obama did not again attack Vegemite, though he mentioned it, and instead admiringly listed cerain beguiling Australianisms, according special praise to ‘earbashing’, which he sore he would popularise in Washington.

Soon there was no-one but Joel and me in the room — illegally, since we had to be accompanied at all times — and we watched again from the sniper’s window the esteemed visitor in more darkness now get into his car unwaving and drive away. I suggested I throw my mobile phone at him and see if they machine-gunned us for it in the usual hyperbolic American over-reaction, but Joel said I was drunk, and we should drink some more, comrade, elsewhere.

We went down empty corridors unaccompanied until a mortified Australian security guard begged us to leave the building now or he’d have to arrest and torture us and he wanted to get home.

We got a lift in the carpark to a pub called the Realm, where Paul Howes, allowing himself a single Obama-like once-a-day cigarette in the tiny designated area, spiritedly averred I was wrong about Gillard and ‘she’s the one, mate, she’s the one’. I asked when he was giving his big China-bagging speech and he said ‘tomorrow’; an Obama-Gillard-Howes conspiracy, clearly, to repudiate all Chinese debt and bomb them back to the Stone Age.

I had another beer and shared a good pizza with Joel and some young staffers, whom I told that Barack on Saturday would have been in office for as many days as John F. Kennedy and hoped this did not forebode in Bali, an address in the past of other terrorists, a similar quietus.

Across the world Greece abandoned, as it tends to now and then, its invention democracy and put in its place a Committee of Public Safety of economists and the like, men determined to punish the poor for the sins of the rich. And so it went. And so, in a far distant motel in a big family room, to bed.


We sat in the Reps front entrance for two hours waiting for someone to answer our calls, nursing two big black bags that might have contained bombs while MPs went by, before we were asked why we’d been there so long. Tony Abbott came in and greeted me and I said he’d given a good speech and he brightened a bit. He looked haggard, scaly, dead-beat and scared, and said in explanation it was “month-long flu” and a need for two weeks off “which of course my present job doesn’t afford”. In Opposition you only have words, and you have to keep “pushing them out”. He was limping still and I urged on him again my Mona Vale chiropractor, and he was in sufficient pain to say he’d go this time, and asked his phone number. I wish him well for some reason, but not victory of course, though ‘well’ can mean nothing else. It’s strange.

From a balcony above the downstairs marble entrance to the Reps we waited and waited and waited for Obama, finally, to saunter almost invisibly in through the door 10 minutes late, not looking up, moved perhaps by his time at the War Memorial. One of the crowd around us was a Julia Gillard clone, same hairdo, same profile, with a hint of madness in her baleful cassowary expression.

We’d got in at last at nine and been escorted to Aussie’s and queued with Windsor, Oakeshott, Plibersek, Smith and Brown in a very long time for tepid bacon and eggs and coffee and grew old awaiting their sluggish preparation. As always it was lovely to be there, among mild famous faces inconvenienced like us by slow service, tiny tables and abrasive propinquity, and warming to all of them, even Eric Abetz, because of it. It was a sort of Stockholm Syndrome: we’re all in this together, comrades, comrades in battle, awaiting Aussie’s eventually excellent coffee, and watching on an always silent screen Obama hugging a schoolgirl, an act which normally in the ACT would lose him his position, consensual though it be, and put him in prison, awaiting trial.

The speeches occurred, and the handshakes and smiles, and the historic shift of world strategies that signalled the end of America’s power, which we watched on Shorten’s television. I tweaked a speech for him at a conference that afternoon of Financial Planners in Surfers Paradise, a segue he did not relish. Obama gave a speech as good as Kennedy’s inaugural and we all agreed it was “not his best”, though its naming of the battles we and America fought in freedom’s cause, or a simulacrum of freedom’s cause, moved me, and I am old, to the edge of tears.
And he visited some schoolkids and flew away. And we ate good beef in the canteen with Viv, and drove tediously for six hours, through abominable traffic, to Mona Vale.

On the way we discussed Obama’s principal difficulty: that he spoke so well and looked so like a stained-glass saint that his voters mistook him for a benign interplanetary visitor like Michael Rennie in The Day The Earth Stood Still, there to set the planet right, using supernatural powers. And when he proved only human, and sometimes mistaken, and sometimes legislatively impotent, he became in their minds a Fallen Angel, felled by the kryptonite of corrupt American democracy, the imperfections of the real world, a world in which a man of his high rhetoric and high- vaulting ideals did not belong, however craftily he tried to fit in.

And so it went.

I dropped Joel off at his car, drove home to Palm Beach, watched The Slap and started writing.

Leave a comment ?


  1. “…though ‘well’ can mean nothing else. It’s strange.”

    Maybe Tony can recommend his Mona Vale shrink for you? You’re strange.

  2. “‘earbashing’, which he sore he would popularise in Washington.”

    A Lennonism?

  3. This one is brilliant, congratulations. Have read it several times. I always wondered if you chose the title the Drum used for it.

  4. Enjoyed the insight. Obama’s a gentleman. Pity he wasn’t so removed from attending the lowly.I can’t picture that he agree’s with the ethics.

    • Isn’t that the art of the politician?

      • Unfortunately yes.
        With Obama’s background with the poor ,you’d hope for different but the position’s a figurehead.
        It’s depressing to see their cheery nonchalant lives daily, year after year and know the lowly’s daily routines and ques.
        They couldn’t care less.

        • Jim, you say “but the position’s a figurehead.”

          I differ very strongly. The President of the United States has enormous power.

          How he exercises that power is the issue :

          “Speak softly and carry a big stick”

          was how Theodore Roosevelt put it, and I think never a truer word was spoken.

          The Pres is Commander in Chief of the US forces and they take it seriously. He says jump they say how high.

          Every US government department answers directly to his cabinet, which he and he alone chooses.

          Need I go on?

  5. Thanks Bob. I enjoyed reading that. Trying to think of Obama’s accomplishments. Can anyone list any?
    For some bizarre reason Obama always reminds me of this Disney singing frog. Great rhetoric. Not much else.

    • Oh, the only public health care system in American history? The rolling back of the worst recession in world history? The end of the stupidest war in American history.

      Not much else, you say?

      Say why you say that.

      • Don’t forget the nailing of bin Laden. Bush could not do it. The intelligence gathered has allowed the destruction of many other al Quaeda operatives elsewhere in the world.

        As far as I can see Obama has made a truly heroic effort at what is an impossible job.

  6. Been watching that cartoon since the early sixties.

  7. The rolling back of the worst recession in world history?

    I think the jury is still out on that one, but time will tell. He should have fired Geitner, Bernanke and Larry Somers right off the bat, and then taken said bat to the likes of Goldman Sachs and J.P.Morgan. He should have gone outside for help on the Economy, instead he listened very closely to the vested interests.

    I wish him well, as Malcolm Turnbull said the other night regarding Bob Carr, politics is a relative business, and Obama has to look a lot better than either Romney or Rick “Sanitorum”, relatively speaking.

  8. Very poignant Bob, and it’s interesting to have such blow by blow accounts. And it is none the worse for having been published and read before.

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