Reflective Gareth with a twist of vintage Hawkie

Bob Hawke. Eighty-eight. Labor hero. Four-time winning prime minister. Gregarious and irreverent, the larrikin with the rapier-wit.

Aged but unbowed, Hawke shared the stage on Wednesday with his famously feisty former foreign minister, Gareth Evans, to launch the latter's tome: Incorrigible Optimist - A Political Memoir.

His presence was striking. Antidote to the cavalcade of cookie-cutter politicians of the new millenium, the leaders scared of their own party rooms or cowering behind focus group research.

Former prime minister Bob Hawke launched the biography of former foreign minister Gareth Evans at the National Press Club on Wednesday. Photo: Andrew Meares

Former prime minister Bob Hawke launched the biography of former foreign minister Gareth Evans at the National Press Club on Wednesday. Photo: Andrew Meares

There followed fierce barbs over the failure of governments to deal with climate change, and the $122 million same-sex marriage survey, which he called "without any question, the worst economic decision made by any Australian prime minister".

Hawke's allure was there too, even if the frame is now wizened by time. The luxuriant coiffure. The searing gaze. The pre-strike downward curl of the mouth. And then the trademark touch to the face or ear as if to suggest the MX missile just fired off had been dispatched casually. Without effort.

Describing Evans as a star who'd shone as bright as any other, Hawke's praise was generous, given his accompanying assertion that his 1983 cabinet was widely accepted to be the most talented since federation.

But if Evans, a multiple veteran of the National Press Club, was waiting nervously, he had his reasons.

Had Hawke noticed a certain negative reflection amid the dense volume?

It was a fear well-placed as Hawke in conclusion, turned to make "a correction of the record concerning myself". Cue expectant laughter.

Evans shifted uneasily on stage, the smile plastered on, but the crimson complexion betraying his discomfort.

"At page 332, Gareth writes that after having set the direction of the government, he, that is me, rarely generated any big new ideas subsequently ... with respect, Gareth, this is simply not true. Without in any way being exhaustive, I refer to, firstly, the substantial increases in child assistance which the welfare sector described at the time as the most significant since Federation, and for which I still receive thanks from grateful mothers. Reasonably big." Cue more laughter.

Hawke then went on to list his March 1991 economic statement, described by one commentator at the time as a "historic milestone". Again Hawke noted drily, "reasonably big". Then there was his role in "bringing an early end to apartheid," and "saving the Antarctic from 1989 to '91."

"So, reasonably good Gareth, but I don't hammer the point".

Evans, 73, yielded, even using the occasion to acknowledge that 33 years ago, Hawke had been right to sack him as attorney-general.

He said Hawke's government succeeded because it "ran on the basis of argument, not authority, no captain's picks. Genuine collective decision-making. Everything was contestable and everything was contested. When I say contested, I mean contested".

And there was self-deprecation too from the man who was known for the odd loss of perspective.

"My own temperament, as I acknowledge in the book, is not cut from the cloth of which Zen masters are made."

This story Reflective Gareth with a twist of vintage Hawkie first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.