For public figures in the English-speaking world, the past, even the fairly remote past, is a very dangerous place. They can only pray that nobody was around to record an offhand remark that at the time struck them as innocuous but which by later standards could be interpreted as sexist, a bit racist or even “Islamophobic.” Should it get broadcast, what until then was a distinguished career could come to an abrupt end.
This, more or less, is what befell Sir Tim Hunt, a molecular physiologist who won a Noble Prize for his work but then made the dreadful mistake of joking about the disquieting presence of women in laboratories. For saying that “Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry,” he became a non-person and had to resign from a number of positions in universities, the Royal Society and other such institutions. He then moved to Japan, where attitudes are more relaxed, and has since kept a low-ish profile.
Luckily for a great many people, in this department at least Argentina has little in common with the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and other outposts of what may be called “woke culture.” Here, amnesia can wipe anyone’s slate clean with quite remarkable speed.
Were this not the case, Alberto Fernández would never have got anywhere near the Pink House. For many years, he subjected his former boss, Mrs Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to one venomous diatribe after another, treating her, among many other unpleasant things, as a psychotic who dwelt in a parallel universe she had invented with the help of the creeps surrounding her, a misfit whose term in office was proving to be an unmitigated disaster for the country.
Were all his many unkind comments made in private conversations he could later claim never took place? Of course not. When among friends he may have treated the lady with even greater contempt than he did in public, but what he said when being interviewed on television or the radio was damning enough. Since Cristina picked him to be the next president, recordings in which he derided her have been re-broadcast time and time again to remind people that, until barely two years ago, his opinions about her and her performance as president were radically different from the ones he now insists he holds.
Thanks to all those recordings, of which more and more keep turning up, the country can sit back and enjoy a spectacle far stranger than the one starring Donald Trump which continues to keep a worldwide audience on tenterhooks. Say what you like about the US president, but the current version of the man is much the same as the one people saw before he reached his present eminence.
Alberto, however, is like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; there are two very different people inhabiting the same body. Both may appear almost simultaneously on your television screen. One moment you can watch him treating Cristina like dirt, the next he is there defending her bravely against the many – almost half the population according to a recent poll – who think she should be behind bars. Distinguishing between the pair of them is not at all easy. No doubt the strains of the presidency will soon start making Alberto look much older, but until then the free-thinking libertarian who despised Cristina will remain physically identical to the man who pays fulsome homage to her.
Does any of this matter? In theory, it should. We are often told that we are living in an age in which sincerity, authenticity and so on are highly rated and people desperately want to be able to trust those they choose to rule over them, but how can anyone take seriously the words of a politician who contradicts himself so blatantly in such a short period of time? In principle, there is nothing much wrong about changing one’s mind in order to adapt to circumstances (Lord Keynes once put a fellow who criticised him for being inconsistent in his place by telling him that “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”) but as far as Alberto is concerned, the only “facts” that may disturb him have to do with his immediate self-interest.
Alberto claims to be a strong believer in the importance of veracity. For several months, he has regularly berated his predecessor, Mauricio Macri, for being a serial liar, by which he presumably means he made promises he was unable to keep, something which, unfortunately, all vote-seeking politicians, both here and in the rest of the world, are prone to do. But is Alberto more truthful by nature than Mauricio? If the stark contrast between what he said when it suited him to be against Cristina and what came later is anything to go by, absolutely nothing he says can be taken at face value.
So, who wields power in Argentina? For many, the choice is binary: Cristina or Alberto. But as there are at least two Albertos, perhaps more. Things are not that simple. Since getting sworn in, the Alberto that came into being just over two years ago when he got back into Cristina’s good graces has been doing his best to show the world he is not just a puppet but his own man. But there, lurking in the background, is his doppelganger, the cheerfully outspoken commentator who, along with many other people – among them Sergio Massa – thought she was a self-indulgent fruitcake whose time in the spotlight was well and truly over.
The stage, then, is set for a psychological thriller, one in which an assortment of devious individuals who trust nobody, not even themselves, are plotting to bring one another down. For the country, this is bad news. Alberto the First would presumably like to see Cristina consigned to jail where she would do less harm, while Alberto the Second wants to keep her more or less onside, so she can rein in her more headstrong supporters, without letting her make any significant policy decisions.
Of the possibilities, the least bad would be the resurrection of Alberto the First, a man whose trenchant views had much to recommend them. But for the time being, the country will continue to be run by Alberto the Second, who must be well aware that at any moment Cristina could come to the conclusion he has already finished the job she gave him and should step aside, so she can return to where she thinks she belongs.