Gough was 97 yesterday. I first met him in the early 1960s, when I was a PhD student at the ANU, spending a good deal of time at Parliament House. In 1967 I started writing the Monday leader (editorial) for the Canberra Times, and not long after that, to share a weekly column with Geoff Sawer, Professor of Law at the ANU. He decided to leave that work to me in 1968, and thereafter, until I stopped writing weekly columns in 1983 (by then for the much-lamented National Times), federal politics and its stars were very much my interest. Gough Whitlam was far and away the most interesting politician at the time, and to my mind remains the most interesting that I met in the second half of the 20th century. We met and talked from time to time, and I once interviewed him at length.
I found Whitlam fascinating, learned, abrasive, competitive and fun. If I wrote something that was in any sense critical of him, he would take me to task when we next met. When he was Prime Minister he ignored what I wrote — and me too — but I accept that prime ministers are extraordinarily busy people. I learned quickly that he liked verbal jousting, and I tried to do my best. But he was quick and deadly, and hard to beat. I did it once, and my wife Bev scored once too. But I was on the receiving end most of the time. I think we got on well, and he came to my farewell as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra. I liked him, but was never an unqualified admirer, and he knew it.
I last saw him at the celebration in 2005 of Donald Horne’s life at the Mitchell Library in Sydney. He was then in a wheelchair, and in some pain, I think. But we said hello, and he asked how things were going. I understand that he is quite unwell, and he no longer makes remarks about contemporary events. Heaven knows what he would think of today’s ALP — though his party was pretty turbulent during the 1960s, too, and he was a cause of some of the turbulence.
Here are two little stories that involve him, both to his credit.
It is the middle of winter in 1980, and I am standing at the front doors of the Coombs Building at the ANU, having farewelled somebody leaving by taxi. The sun is pleasant and I am enjoying it, reluctant to leave the brightness and warmth and go back to my room. I notice a big white Commonwealth car pulling in to the kerb in front of me, and realise that its passenger will be the ANU’s first National Visiting Fellow. Gough unwinds himself out of the car, and I realise that I have twenty seconds or so to think of a scoring shot. He wins so often. And it comes to me.
He strides up the steps towards me, and I look at my watch.
‘Whitlam,’ I say, in the tones of a headmaster reproving an errant student, ‘it is past 2 o’clock. Your essay was due not later than two. You have failed!’
He sweeps past, grinning. ‘Well done, comrade!’
The second story involves my parents as well. They are going to visit me in Canberra, and it occurs to me that I could arrange a little get-together with two of their better-known students: Gough Whitlam, to whom my mother had taught French in 1929 at Telopea Park School, and Sir Geoffrey Yeend, to whom my father had taught Mathematics at Canberra High School in 1943. Geoff Yeend became Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in 1976, and of course knew Gough well. Both were agreeable, indeed anxious to come. A day or so before the scheduled meeting at University House at 5.30, of which my parents know nothing, Gough rings me up.
‘Tell me, what was your mother’s maiden name? I have forgotten.’
‘Taylor. Edna Taylor.’
‘Of course. Of course. Thank you.’
Gough arrives first, and walks toward them with a beaming smile.
‘Ah, Edna Taylor — and as pretty as ever!’
‘Oh, Gough!’ she replies, almost overcome both at the encounter and the compliment.
Geoff arrives shortly after, and we have a spirited, funny and most enjoyable forty minutes.
Afterwards, my mother says, shaking her head, ‘To think that he remembered my name!’
‘Ah, Mum, he has a prodigious memory. He’s famous for it.’
I owed him that one.