London's Personality Contest

By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

First, a disclaimer: I have known Boris Johnson, the Tory candidate for mayor of London, for 15-odd years. During that time, I've met his first wife, his second wife and his mistress, though I don't think the latter merited that title when we were introduced. I worked for some of the same editors as he during his earlier career as a journalist, and I can remember many of his columns. One -- concerning the dubious legal status of one of his children ("Congratulations, it's a Belgian") -- still makes me laugh when I think about it.

And a second disclaimer: I first met Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London who is seeking reelection, 15-odd years ago, too, when he was still a member of Parliament. I don't know his mistresses -- though I gather there are several -- or his colleagues. But I do recall one memorable dinner, organized by a London newspaper, during which we argued at some length about whether Stalin was evil. I said yes. He disagreed. No one laughed.

Given that I know both candidates, I should probably be disqualified from writing about the London mayoral election, which takes place Thursday. But in this case it doesn't matter. Although there are some actual issues at stake -- police, traffic, housing -- this particular campaign has been completely dominated by discussion of the candidates' remarkably different, and remarkably vivid, personalities. This is no sober clash of ideas, a race between Mr. Livingstone of the Labor Party and Mr. Johnson of the Conservative Party. It's a contest between "Ken" and "Boris," a race in which, from the start, personal anecdotes have mattered more than policies.

The candidates haven't exactly gone out of their way to discourage this kind of commentary, either. Though he's been more staid than usual during the campaign, Boris can't stop telling jokes, whether at the expense of the aforementioned mistress or the people of Portsmouth (a city of " drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labour MPs"). Adjectives such as "mop-haired," "blustering" and "old Etonian" appear in just about every profile of him. So does his most famous quotation-- "If you vote for the Conservatives, your wife will get bigger breasts and your chances of driving a BMW M3 will increase" -- though that line is misleading, as his sense of humor is usually far more self-deprecating. "Beneath the carefully constructed veneer of a blithering buffoon," he once remarked, "there lurks a blithering buffoon."

Ken, by contrast, isn't funny or self-deprecating. His need to attract attention manifests itself in other ways: the expensive celebration he had planned to commemorate 50 years of Fidel Castro's dictatorial rule, for example, or his public embrace of a Muslim cleric who defends suicide bombing and advocates the death penalty for homosexuals. Like Boris, Ken often offends people, though his insults are less likely to have started out as jokes. He once called the American ambassador to Britain a "chiseling little crook" and informed a Jewish journalist that he was behaving "like a concentration camp guard." I'm told he sometimes makes good decisions about transportation, though traffic in central London still seems pretty bad to me.

This is a personality contest, and a deeply unserious one at that: If the good people of London really thought their traffic mattered that much, Boris wouldn't be a candidate and Ken would never have been elected in the first place. But it's a competition nevertheless worth watching. This campaign could well be a blueprint for future elections since it is "post-modern," and post-ideological, in the deepest sense: In a world in which "issues" are not the issue and no one takes political parties seriously anymore, there's nothing left to talk about except who said what to whom and whose tongue was sharper while doing so.

Usually, we don't have this problem in the United States, our politics being too partisan and our nation too divided to allow for it. But a glimpse of what it could be like is available in the form of the Democratic primary, which has also deteriorated, unsurprisingly, into a particularly nasty personality clash. Any long-drawn-out contest between two people who don't -- let's face it -- differ that much on fundamental issues will invariably turn into farce; whether it's an amusing one, as in London, or a "bitter" one, as in Pennsylvania, depends on the characters of the candidates involved.

So three cheers, then, for ideological politics or at least for real clashes of ideas, and let's hope our presidential election, when we get to it, includes some: At least ideologically divisive elections make everyone talk about things that matter. And, yes, I do hope Boris wins.

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