It is a week now since David Lange died in hospital, leaving behind five children, and a couple of wives (well a wife and an ex-wife). The whole thing made me inexplicably and immediately very sad; I have been busy and only just really had time to think on why I have been so sad about it.
I think there are two reasons, the first of them personal, the second...patriotic, I guess. And this coming from a person who has never had a patriotic sentiment in their stunted life.
The personal reason why I'm feeling deeply sad about the death of a man who I never personally had anything to do with (and who appears to have run off with his speech writer later in life) is that he was, for me, a childhood prime minister. He came to power in 1984, the first year I can remember as having had a number, and stayed in power until I was near the end of primary school, in 1989. So, like all things from one's childhood for me he feels like the "real" prime minister, despite the fact I am about to vote in my third general election (and I don't think I have voted for the person who got in even once).
The patriotic reason is much more simple, though. There is no doubt that Lange was an impressive orator, and an extremely intelligent man. He was also a man of much personal inspiration and responsibility; he put himself through law school by working at the freezing works because his dad was a GP in a poor area and didn't charge people enough to pay for his son's education (funny how you learn a lot about the people who have made history around the time of their death).
None of this, however, would have made him a great or important prime minister, or someone to inspire patriotism. What does make him important and patriotism inspiring, however, is the fact that he dragged NZ kicking and screaming into a sense if independent nationhood. There are elements in today's society who will disagree with me and say that (for whatever reason) Lange did not do anything like enough... I don't want to touch this issue with a barge pole.
NZ, from colonization until the end of WWII was largely a colony of the British Empire, going where Britain went and referring to England as "home" -- even those who had never been there. After WWII, we developed a not dissimilar relationship with the US, as evidenced by our involvement in the SE Asian wars. Lange was the person to break this tie, and he did it in a way I feel we can all be proud of as NZers -- he said no to nuclear weaponry, and he put this naysay into legislation. This set NZ apart from the US, and has resulted in a certain amount of punitive ostracism from trade agreements and such. It also resulted in an act of war by the French government, which was dealt with diplomatically. In this single act, Lange enabled us as a nation to have something important to stand for, and gave us a choice in things like whether to get involved in the most recent Iraq conflict (and, quietly, thank goodness we didn't; the idea of terrorists blowing up Auckland just sends my fear about the cost of infrastructure in a small country like this reeling).
Interestingly enough, two days after Lange died we went on our first training exercise with the US military since the nuclear ban came in. Interestingly enough, the National party is promising to "review" our nuclear free status should they be elected this year.
Farewell, David Lange, and thankyou, whereever you are, for giving me something to be proud of as a NZer. Thankyou for giving NZ a choice. And thankyou, perhaps, for deciding who I will not vote for in this election (a question that has been vexing me greatly for some time).