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Ex- British PM Gordon Brown wears his gift of drab with pride

Gordon Brown, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, talks to students and faculty Tuesday at New York University. Veteran political consultant Robert Shrum sits behind him.

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Gordon Brown, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, talks to students and faculty Tuesday at New York University. Veteran political consultant Robert Shrum sits behind him.

WASHINGTON — Being boring matters to Gordon Brown.

He wears his monotonousness, his yawning lack of charisma, like some great coat of arms. Boring, in the vocabulary of a Gordon Brown, means sturdy and strong, substantive, not frivolous. Boring means he wants to be someone you shouldn't so much get excited about, but watch and follow.

Brown finds virtue in stoicism and inspiration in dull numbers, dubbed his "tractor statistics tendency" by the British press, which sneered at his use of figures by comparing him to the disseminators of dubious farm equipment manufacturing numbers in the old Soviet Union.

"If you're brought up in a Scottish Presbyterian background, people tend not to talk about themselves," says the 59-year-old son of a Presbyterian minister. "They tend to say, 'Judge me in what I do, not in what I say.' That's part of the original Calvinism."

This matter of being boring amuses Brown, and he laughs before doggedly pivoting the conversation back to the a drumbeat of numbers and projections and global financial-doom scenarios. These sepulchral, data-filled thoughts underpin his earnest but excitement-free book Beyond the Crash: Overcoming the First Crisis of Globalization.

Inevitably, the friends of famously dry politicians offer familiar testimony: The pol in private is side-splittingly funny, or at least good dinner party company.

Brown's good friend Robert Shrum, an American political consultant, says he "is, contrary to some of his popular image, a very engaging person."

He has no retorts to the Labor Party cohorts whose memoirs have jabbed at him, who have used his stature to generate headlines and sales. When Brown the Boring appears in such tell-alls, he invariably also gets portrayed as Brown the Brutish, Brown the Conniving or Brown the Socially Inept.

This British memoir factory plays up the defining deficit of Brown's long political career —his friendship turned rivalry with Tony Blair. Brown was Blair's chancellor of the exchequer, a job that gave him oversight of the British economy, before succeeding him as party leader and prime minister. But on Brown's watch, Labor suffered a humiliating defeat in elections in May, and he was forced to resign.

"There's a place for boringness; chancellor is a good place to be boring," Blair's former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, says. "The problem is it doesn't transfer well to being leader." Brown's tenure as chancellor of the exchequer, Powell says, was marked by "scariness and shouting," as well as indecisiveness.

Brown doesn't punch back; instead he produces a studious and dutiful post-Downing Street tome. It stacks glumly next to Blair's klieg-lighted, best-selling memoir, A Journey, in which Blair expresses admiration for Brown's drive and intellect but finds him to be a "strange guy" with "zero emotional intelligence."

The Scotsman also gets zinged in the tell-all of Lord Peter Mandelson, a cabinet minister under both Blair and Brown.

Brown politely declines to discuss the specifics of any of these books.

What Brown is interested in is global economics, and in this area, he demonstrates an intellectual capacity that counter­balances his lack of, as Blair puts it, emotional intelligence.

Brown projects a gloomy future unless the world's countries agree to "something bigger, more imaginative, and more lasting than even the Marshall Plan for Europe." There's a bit of a kumbaya quality to some of Brown's hopes: He talks of a "moral foundation of shared commitment."

This is necessary, he argues, because of the lessons from the 1990s meltdown of the Asian markets and, from his defining moment in office: the 2008 banking crisis. Brown found himself in a high-stakes, intercontinental chess match with U.S. regulators and powerful U.S. and British banks whose liquidity problems threatened to trigger another Great Depression.

Brown and Alistair Darling, Brown's chancellor of the exchequer, settled on Britain's largest bailout. The banks survived, a depression was averted and Brown, a man well acquainted with disappointment, had his finest moment.

Ex- British PM Gordon Brown wears his gift of drab with pride 12/18/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:42pm]
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