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Last Updated: Monday, 7 March, 2005, 11:19 GMT
Walden's secret ingredient for power
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Brian Walden, one of the most feared political interviewers, has a new challenge - fill the radio slot previously occupied by Alistair Cooke. Having spent years close to power, he's got no shortage of insight.

It's not often you talk to someone who can tell you the secret ingredient of political success, as told to them first-hand by Richard Nixon.

Particularly when this recipe for political domination was passed to the US president by the Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung.

Such high-altitude gossip - and I'll tell you Mao's secret later - comes from a lifetime working among the political giants. And Brian Walden's career, from the House of Commons to television's griller-in-chief, has given him a grandstand view on half a century of political life.

But what does he make of the current political landscape, haunted by public apathy, cynicism and accusations that politicians are too "on message" to be interesting?

WALDEN'S NEW PROGRAMME
Point of View is broadcast each Friday on BBC Radio 4 at 2050GMT, & Sunday at 0850GMT
His column will also appear here in the BBC News Magazine each Monday

Walden, now aged 72, entered the House of Commons as a Labour MP in 1964, when he says politicians were much less under the cosh of party discipline and when political thinking was driven by "gut reactions" rather than focus groups.

And for someone who has been steeped in politics, he says he's not even sure that if he was a young person now that he would be motivated enough to join a political party.

"I can quite understand why young people are not as interested in politics as my generation. It isn't as dramatic, there can't be any question about that," he says.

'Answer the question'

British politics used to have a real ideological tension between left and right wingers and this was amplified internationally by the Cold War and the plausible threat of nuclear war, he says.

WALDEN'S 7 WONDERS OF THE WORLD
'Nicest bloke': Ronald Reagan, US President
Most honest: John Biffen, Leader of the House of Commons
'Devastatingly intelligent': Denis Healey, Chancellor
'Most frank': Norman Tebbit, Trade and Industry Secretary
'Canniest': Michael Heseltine, Deputy Prime Minister
'Disappointing': John Major, Prime Minister
Funniest:Tony Crosland, Foreign Secretary

But on a more practical level, he says that youngsters have "so many more diversions, so many more calls on their time" that politics is more likely to sidelined.

"If you took an 18-year-old back 50 years, what they'd find most astonishing was how little there was to do. Now they have a myriad of options, the internet, watching television, going to the pub or whatever.

"In 1955, a lot of people didn't have television sets, there was the radio, a gramophone and Cole Porter."

He has also seen a more aggressive, confrontational approach to political interviewing emerging since his own days in the hot seat at Weekend World and Walden.

"You can't bowl slowly. You've got to deliver a bumper with your first ball. You're not allowed to smile and say 'What do you think about this?' and tease him on and let him do his party political and then start the interview.

"There's no time for that. You've got to bowl him a bumper straight away. 'You're a bit of a clown, aren't you? Answer the question.'"

'Gobbledygook'

But he has no truck with politicians who don't feel that they are able to get their own views heard over the voices of the interviewers and commentators.

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan was the "nicest bloke" out of all Brian Walden's interviewees

"If politicians are going to talk in an incredible kind of gobbledygook jargon, to conceal what they actually believe, they're going to have to accept being interpreted by journalists who will say 'The viewers will never make head nor tail of this, I'll tell them what it really means'."

If they put their ideas in a way that was more ear-catching, they would make more of an impression.

"When Mrs Thatcher said 'No, no, no," to Europe, the clip didn't end up in the waste paper basket."

Brian Walden's television fame coincided with Margaret Thatcher's premiership - and these two figures, both in many ways outsiders from their own parties - became part of the political landscape of the 1980s.

Although he declines to say that he "admires" Lady Thatcher, he says her impact would be hard to exaggerate and that her legacy continues to hang over contemporary Britain.

"She was an immensely important influence. Thatcher changed everything. The reason that you're living in the sort of society you're living in now is because of what Thatcher did in the Eighties. It was an utterly different place when she came to power in 1979.

"She changed things in a radical way that hadn't happened since the war and hasn't happened since. Thatcher was the great changer."

Although saying that he's "too old a bird" to compare the current crop of political leaders with their predecessors, he has plenty of experience on which to base comparisons.

'Tears in his eyes'

And his experiences are not what you might expect. The "nicest bloke" he'd met among all the politicians he'd interviewed was former US president, Ronald Reagan.

Margaret Thatcher
"Thatcher changed everything," says her former television sparring partner

"It wasn't a contrived image. He was just a thoroughly nice, good-tempered chap. He didn't know that much, but he knew certain basics and he shared views with the ordinary American.

"He actually believed in the shining city on a hill, tears came into his eyes when he talked about it, even in private."

Meanwhile former prime minister, John Major, is recalled as being among the more disappointing interviewees. "You couldn't get him to open up. He didn't like the pressure of it. He didn't actually want to tell the viewers anything. He didn't like frank interviewing, it wasn't his scene. He didn't like quarrelling, I don't think."

Another US leader, Richard Nixon, is remembered for his political astuteness. Mr Walden spoke to the former president months before the 1984 presidential election, and rejecting the current poll predictions, Nixon rattled off which party would win each state.

"In November, Nixon hadn't got a single one wrong. He was guilty of Watergate, but if you wanted to know about American politics, he knew it backwards."

And what did the Chinese leader tell Nixon about the key to power?

"Nixon said to me once, 'You've got very small feet. It's very important. Mao Tse Tung told me that men with small feet have dominant personalities and they dominate the world.' I gazed down at Nixon's feet and they weren't too large either."




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