Andrew West is an ABC Radio National presenter, a former Sydney Morning Herald journalist, and author of Bob Carr: A Self-Made Man.
In less than a week, Bob Carr is scheduled to join the leaders of the G20 nations in St Petersburg, Russia (unless Prime Minister Rudd makes a late decision to attend*). When the time comes for the obligatory 'class photograph', protocol will most likely dictate that Carr – a foreign minister representing his prime minister – stands in the back row. But whatever the diplomatic order, this moment will represent the apex of Carr's career.
There he will be, not quite alongside Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel, but unquestionably a player. This is arguably the occasion for which Carr has been preparing for 50 years.
Carr, now 65, never wanted to become the longest serving premier of NSW, but he did crave a political career. He began planning at age 15, when he joined the Maroubra branch of the Labor Party. In later years, quoting the political journalist and Packer lobbyist Alan Reid, he would describe his vocation as 'a fever in the blood'.
His plan was straightforward: university, an interim stint as a journalist, then into federal parliament. With sufficient study, striving and street-smarts (and Carr is more committed to self-education and improvement than any politician I have ever encountered) he would work his way through a couple of junior portfolios before becoming foreign minister.
But as Carr watched his contemporaries and friends, particularly Paul Keating, win pre-selection for safe Labor seats, his own plans went awry. In his late twenties, powerful men whom he thought, naively, were his patrons thwarted his attempt to enter the senate. Labor's 1983 victory meant that Lionel Bowen, whom Carr had hoped to succeed in the seat of Kingsford-Smith, became deputy prime minister and attorney-general, with his own long–term agenda for constitutional reform. Bowen was not retiring any time soon.
Carr would have to wait until he was 36 to get into parliament – and only state parliament, at that – but he was, unquestionably, a better politician and a more rounded man for it.
He ended up spending almost a decade in journalism, first at the ABC, then The Bulletin. Then, in the mid 1970s, fearing he had missed the chance to enter parliament, Carr applied for the graduate intake at the Department of Foreign Affairs. He made it through to the final round of interviews but narrowly missed selection.
During his ABC traineeship, Carr camped out in the departmental library. I have always thought this was illustrative of Carr's extraordinary self-discipline and capacious intellect. He tore through copies of The Nation, Commentary, New Statesman, Foreign Affairs and week-old editions of The New York Times. His indulgence was the theatre of American politics but his fascination was the Cold War.
Being aligned with Labor's right-wing meant that Bob Carr always had a reflexive commitment to Australia's alliance with the US. WikiLeaks would later reveal that during Gough Whitlam's time in government, the young Bob Carr was 'briefing' the US consul in Sydney on the state of the Labor Party. I use the inverted commas advisedly because his comments were hardly revelatory – merely a reflection of mainstream commentary at the time that 'economic policy has never been Whitlam's bag'.
In 1972, Carr took a US-government funded trip to America to observe the presidential election. It was whispered — joked, really — that such trips were arranged by the CIA and offered to young Liberal and Labor activists whose parties had identified them as rising stars.
Yet it always struck me that Carr never bought unquestioningly into the Cold Warrior mentality. He left for that 1972 trip as a supporter of the Democratic Party's peacenik candidate George McGovern and returned disappointed when McGovern lost. Carr admired the political nous of Richard Nixon but he insists there was never an ideological affinity, 'except on the Clean Air Act!' he once joked, referring to the bill Nixon signed in 1970.
As a teenager, Carr was ambivalent about the Vietnam War. But on deeper consideration, especially after the revelation of the 1968 My Lai massacre by US troops, he accepted there were limits to waging the Cold War.
I once described Carr as a 'Reaganaut', implying he had a naive and fawning admiration for Ronald Reagan. I was uncharitable – and wrong. During the 1980s, Carr was one of those Labor figures who accepted that the political tide was running in neo-liberal direction on economics and a neo-conservative direction on foreign policy, towards confronting the Soviet Union, and he argued the centre-left would have to adapt.
But like the man he now models himself on, former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, Carr was repelled by the excesses of Reagan's policy, especially its support – tacit and overt – for dictators and tyrants in Latin America and Africa, such as Efrain Rios Montt, Augusto Pinochet, Roberto d'Aubuisson and Jonas Savimbi.
He insisted to me that he hated communism and fascism in equal measure, never really buying the Jeane Kirkpatrick line that rightist authoritarianism was preferable to communist totalitarianism. One of the reasons the East Germans were so bad, he said, was because they had suppressed a worker's strike in 1953. For Carr, Solidarity in Poland was as much a workers' movement as it was a wedge against the Soviets.
If Carr saw himself as anything, it was as an internationalist social democrat. More on that in a follow-up post.
* Senator Carr confirmed that he will attend the St Petersburg summit.
Photo by Flickr user CSIS: Center for Strategic and International Studies.