Belfast Telegraph

Why surface impressions don’t tell true tale of a politician’s character

By Alf McCreary

What do you really think of Theresa May? Is she a luckless Tory leader who will be toppled by her party sooner rather than later, or is she a courageous and high-principled Christian woman with a strong sense of duty who has carried on in one of the most thankless jobs in politics?

The television reporters were rather kind about her painful-to-watch keynote speech to the Conservative Party conference.

The Daily Mail was also sympathetic, running the headline 'The old girl made it to the end'.

The Times, however, which always judges her harshly, took a different approach, proclaiming on its front page 'May on final warning after speech shambles'.

I felt sorry for her, as I'm sure anyone who regularly speaks to the public and knows the risks of doing so did.

If you ever feel that your speech is going to be easy, that is the time to stop speaking in public.

The whole episode reminded me of the wise advice from the Bible: "Judge not, that ye be not judged."

In other words, if you dole out criticisms and judgements about other people, you can expect to be criticised yourself.

This is part of the role of a newspaper columnist and a politician, but it is surprising how many strident politicians have thin skins themselves. You sometimes wonder why they took up the rough trade of politics in the first place.

The same applies to other public figures, including church leaders and some members of the media, though one of the qualities I like about most journalists is their earthy lack of self-righteousness and pomposity. Some, of course, are an exception to this.

Despite the good Biblical advice about not judging people, most of us will have made up our minds about Mrs May.

However, this raises the deeper question of how we come to our judgements. Is Mrs May a bad leader because her conference speech was a mess and she ruined her own election campaign, or does she have the stickability in times of crisis to battle through Brexit for the good of all of us?

In the modern age, we judge people on the minutest details. Was Ed Miliband a failure as a politician because he was pictured eating a bacon sandwich badly, or did Neil Kinnock lose the election because he looked like a wally who was knocked over by the incoming tide?

There are almost too many occasions on which to judge Donald Trump.

Did he seem truly presidential this week when he visited Las Vegas after the slaughter of 59 people by a demonic gunman?

The real question to ask about Trump is much deeper. Earlier, he prayed that this crisis would bring people in America together.

Sadly, however, you cannot realistically pray for healing when your presidency remains one of the most divisive in American history, and Trump cannot be taken seriously about preventing further gun massacres so long as he remains a champion for the US gun lobby.

Nearer home, we also make sharp judgements about our politicians, and these are often based as much on television clips as they are on detailed policy measures.

This week there was a brief exchange between Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill at a Tory Party conference fringe meeting in which they stated their very different views about Northern Ireland.

Does that mean that the Stormont talks are thus finally doomed, or was their exchange of views any great surprise?

I don't know either woman personally, having met Arlene only once socially and briefly, but sometimes I have a naive thought that if it was left to them alone, without the help of their many advisers on the wilder shores of Orange and Green, they might hammer out an agreement.

In the end, we probably all base our views too much on surface impressions and fail to look much deeper.

One final thought. Abraham Lincoln was, by all accounts, a rugged character and rather ungainly in manner, with a quirky sense of humour. But look at what he achieved.

I shudder to think how he would have survived politically in our modern age.

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