Page 7: David Lange’s achievement
Lange, David Russell
Lawyer, politician, prime minister
This biography, written by Barry Gustafson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
David Lange wrote two memoirs: Nuclear free: the New Zealand way (1990) and My life (2005). Both are somewhat tendentious but the first is the best-written and most entertaining memoir by any New Zealand politician. The second, dictated during the last months of his life, when he was seriously ill, is more sober though still showing flashes of his keen intelligence and unique wit.
Rhetoric and humour
Lange’s greatest leadership skill, although he lacked many others, was his superb rhetoric. Throughout his life, Lange was very good at quick, wickedly witty one-line comments, often at the expense of an opponent. His language was colourful and his humour almost invariably infectious. As a speaker, Lange is perhaps best remembered for telling a young American student antagonist in the Oxford Union debate that he could smell the uranium on his breath. When the diminutive Robert Muldoon was knighted in 1984, Lange quipped that ‘After a long year we’ve got a very short knight’;1 National Party leader Jim Bolger, Lange said, had ‘gone around the country stirring up apathy’.2
Change and controversy
The government Lange led from 1984 to 1989 transformed the New Zealand that had been largely created by the first Labour government led by Michael Joseph Savage some 50 years before. Considerable reform was undoubtedly necessary, although critics said it went too far and Roger Douglas believed it had not gone far enough. Like Savage, whom the public loved more than his lieutenants, Lange, largely because of his oratorical skills and humour, is remembered with greater affection than his colleagues who devised and implemented the significant but controversial policies.
The great salesman
Lange was the great salesman, using witty and telling one-liners, nostalgia, and inspirational and aspirational rhetoric. He sold the party's radical economic reforms, at least until he belatedly came to question their social effects, and he came to personify New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy, about which he initially had some reservations.
Lange was not a politician who delighted in policy detail, relished personal confrontation, or who was able to build and maintain factional strength in the cabinet, caucus or wider party organisation. For those things he depended on others.
In the end, unable to impose his will on the government he led, or even argue his cause effectively within it, he chose to resign as prime minister and conceded the field to former allies who had by then become his enemies.