David Lange: My Life

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My Life
David Lange
Review first published 3 November 2007

Fascinating insight into a gifted, complex and influential New Zealand politician

One might have reservations about his politics and the trajectory of his carriage of public office, but it is impossible to deny the impact David Lange and his fourth Labour government had on New Zealand society, nor his eloquence as a public speaker and raconteur. When Lange died of complications from renal failure last year New Zealand lost a unique voice and left no obvious successor.

This short autobiographical memoir - dictated in his last days, as his eyesight gave out and he could no longer read or write, is a wonderful book. Lange's prose is wonderful in the early stages —- benefitting, I think, from the manner in which he delivered the manuscript (you can almost hear it as an extempore public address) - and there is something sombre and moving about the way, as the chapters progress, the fluidity dries up, a function of Lange's failing health and ebbing energy.

David Lange died two days after the final proofs rolled from the presses.

Not only beautifully crafted, but historically interesting too: clearly (and unashamedly) coloured by Lange's own perspective, it is a useful prism for viewing the directions in which Lange pulled his administration, which at the time defied easy explanation. Lange is candid about the deterioration of his relationship with co-architect Roger Douglas, and magnanimous enough to recognise that their long-lasting rancour was due as much to his own intemperate personality as Douglas' uncompromising vision.

I dare say that Douglas' memoir of the same period, should he write one (and I hope he does) will provide a somewhat different and equally valuable picture of events.

Ultimately the Lange administration will be seen in the wider geopolitical context of the 1980s perhaps as something that was going to happen at some point anyway, but when one looks at the vibrant, dynamic and diverse culture, economy and polity that New Zealand enjoys today, and compare it with the staid and stultifying one which Lange took on in 1984, one can only tip one's hat to the man who actually did start that process rolling and acknowledge this very personal record of the events.

In 1984 Lange's soon-to-be predecessor, the late unlamented Rob Muldoon, left a sarcastic epitaph, reflexively, in the course of being pasted in a televised political debate: when stumped for anything to else say at all, barked bitterly: “I love you, Mister Lange".

A few years on, with plenty of hindsight and more wounds healed by time, this might yet — without Muldoon's ironic veneer — grow to be the received wisdom about David Russell Lange's contribution to New Zealand's political history.

See also