10 Questions with David Cohen


Q1: How would you describe this book? It’s not a biography and nor is it a ghost-written memoir. So what is it?

A conversational memoir. In the obvious sense, it’s a conversation — in fact, many long conversations conducted over the better part of a year — between Jim Bolger and me. But it’s also a conversation between him and the reader. The eldest of our country’s eldest statesman is offering quite an adventurous summation of not only his own life and times but this curious nation we call home.


Q2: It’s pretty timely, would you say

Yeah, the National Party does seem to be in quite a shambolic state at the moment. Everything’s at sea except the fleet. But that only highlights how successful The Great Helmsman was in his time at leading the crew.


Q3: And important?

Sure. And not just in the obvious political sense.  For example, there’s a chapter having to do with his rural experience of growing up in the wake of the Great Depression. Who would have guessed such a theme would become so suddenly relevant?


Q4: What did this ‘in-conversation’ format enable both you and he to do?

Well, it allowed me to structure the chapters around different places where Jim has lived or worked or has a strong connection with — Ireland, Washington DC, Taranaki, Wellington and so on. Places in the heart. I think this provided for a clean structure. For the most part, the style was for me to introduce each of these interludes in my own words, to show why they were important, and then have Jim talking around it for the bulk of the chapter. I deliberately chose this over using a Q&A style, which would have become pretty wearying for the reader over the course of 300 pages.


Q5: You had had some experience of interviewing Jim Bolger in previous years. Did working on this book shift your view of him?

Yeah, I’d interviewed him back when I worked as a staff writer at the Evening Post in the late 1980s and early 1990s and then again when I met up with him in Washington after he became the ambassador to the United States. But I feel like I really got to know the man this time, the likeable, pushy, generally considered, occasionally impatient man. After thirty or so intense hours together, and then almost as many hours again — during the lockdown if you please — subsequently revisiting various themes and clarifying dozens of little loose ends, you do start to get a vivid sense of who you’re dealing with. Those earlier interviews I did seem so lightweight by comparison. 


Q6: What in particular surprised you about his views in 2020?

Politically, I was struck by how easily he could have been a Labour Party leader. If you discount the obvious tribal loyalties to National, there’s virtually nothing he says today that wouldn’t fit comfortably on the other side. I had the same impression, albeit in the other direction, when I recently dealt with another highly successful former prime minister, Helen Clark, who if her earlier circumstances were a little different could have made a rather nifty National Party premier.


Q7: Where in particular would you say his thinking runs a step or two ahead of the mainstream?

I think Jim is pretty much on board with most of the progressive causes of the moment — yes, some of that is political positioning for what will probably come to be seen as a legacy work, but a lot of it is definitely genuine. Like his view about the eclipse of the white man. This isn’t some woke undergraduate spouting slogans. This is a deeply religious father of nine who was raised in the conservative hinterlands thoughtfully bidding farewell to a spent world. 


Q8: And that’s what makes him interesting, right?

Definitely. And anyone who receives three successive mandates to lead a country is by definition interesting, too. What makes Jim all the more interesting to me (and I should probably add here that I’m not a National Party member or even voter) are the factors that shaped him: the tough farming life, the Depression, the self-education, the church and of course the immediate Irish family ties the two of us surprisingly share. I think that last bit tickled him a bit: somebody with Irish background who also happens to be called Cohen.


Q9: He has a vision of what this county could be, and what it needs to do, that might challenge some conservative National supporters. Do you think this book might reshape their thinking, knowing that The Great Helmsman has worked through the issues and arrived at these points of view?

Perhaps. The bigger surprise might be the man himself though. As I note in the introduction, he’s both incredibly familiar to most of us but also a little unknown. Hopefully less so after this.


Q10: It’s been a rich life. Happy with your part in shedding some new light on it?

Absolutely. This is my sixth book, and the easiest for me to describe as culturally valuable. There was always the option of going down the standard biographical route — you know, talking with a few dozen people and using their voices to track the subject. Or we could have simply rehashed the political years, which are actually only one part of this new work. But why not give him his head, as it were, and bring readers into a much deeper personal conversation?