THE resolution of Labor's leadership crisis has had me reflecting for days on the cult of personality in politics. The battle between Rudd and Gillard was nothing if not personal. Differences over policy-making barely got a look in, although there was some blame-shifting over who was responsible for decisions that turned out to be bad calls: Gillard's call in early 2010 to shelve the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, for example. Of course, Rudd didn't have to accept her advice.
Otherwise, this was all about personality - mainly, Rudd's personality. It was truly something to see such a sudden outpouring of what was clearly pent-up loathing towards the former PM from his colleagues. Wayne Swan's press release last week was a public excoriation of a kind you rarely see in modern politics, all the more so because it came from a man-machine that made the Ruddbot himself look like JFK by comparison.
And that's what's got me completely stumped. Why this cult of personality around this grey, moon-faced man who talks in circles? (First Dog On The Moon's persistent caricature of Rudd as a balloon is both apt and acidic.)
Kevin himself, in the run-up to the ballot on Monday that saw him soundly defeated, was starting to exhibit signs of having drunk his own Kool-Aid. At the very least he was doing a good impression of a man with a severe Messiah complex. Knowing he didn't have the numbers, he ran around asking citizens to call their local members, to let them know he offered them their only chance of hanging on to their jobs.
It was at that point that the grand chasm in the politics we see, the politics we are sold, and what actually happens was revealed. The cabinet door swung open and we, the citizenry, were invited in for a rare look around.
The Kevin Rudd we thought we knew - the brilliant campaigner who vanquished John Winston Howard; the man with the rich, independent but adoring wife, who used her hand to plant a proud kiss on his cheek towards the end of that mind-numbing victory speech; the man who stepped up to the plate to deliver one of the great speeches of our time in apology to the Stolen Generations - was not, or at least not entirely, the man we elected in 2007.
In fact, Kevin 07 was a contemptuous, chaotic control freak who treated everyone around him as lesser mortals. A man so driven by the 24-hour news cycle that his vision, which once seemed to lift beyond the horizon, was reduced to the timing of the next press release. And a man whose solutions to complex policy problems - when he was finally forced to make decisions - were, in the end, a bit dull.
So, their hand forced, the government unloaded, one cannon after another. Swan's fusillade, in Philip Coorey's words, cut Rudd in half. But cutting Rudd in half wasn't enough; he had to be dismembered also. Nicola Roxon, Tony Burke, Peter Garrett (no doubt still smarting over taking the rap for the insulation debacle) all weighed in to say that it's OK for you to like this guy, but try working for him.
Julia Gillard, by comparison, was sold as a doer, with the legislative track record leading a minority government to prove it. She may not be popular, but she knows how to get a job done.
The government has talked about this purgative event as though it were therapy. Suddenly, we were all supposed to understand. Suddenly, Gillard's authority seemed absolute. Now, apparently, the government can go back to work and get on with governing.
But here's a thought. Just maybe the press gallery, its lust sated, can go back to work too. They can get back to chasing more difficult stories about complex policies which address complex problems. That's if they, too, can throw away the press release written with the express intention of providing a distraction, resist the temptation to write the headline first, and lift their own eyes to the horizon.
In July last year, the estimable economics writer Ross Gittins cut to the bone with a piece about the importance of trust. Trust, Gittins told us, is central not only to our personal relationships, but our economy and political culture also. In it, he wrote that it seemed the public's trust in Julia Gillard would always remain tainted by the manner in which she came to power.
Gittins was writing mainly about Gillard's post-election embrace of a carbon tax, but it wasn't just that - as we all know. It was her knifing of a popularly elected first term prime minister, about whom the electorate understandably felt entitled to exercise their own political judgment.
What we were essentially told last week went something like this: you made a mistake. The Kevin Rudd you want to believe in, that you invested your hopes and aspirations in, isn't the real Kevin. We're sorry if you feel misled. We're sorry we didn't tell you before. That's because we wanted to believe too. We needed a Messiah to deliver us from John Howard.
It remains to be seen whether what happened last week might prove purgative to the public as much as for Labor and the media, and that Gillard might yet make a connection with the Australian public she hasn't made before. But my overwhelming feeling, as I wrote last week, is that the country is still in a kind of purgatory.
Kevin Rudd's vision for a more compassionate Australia was famously laid out in an essay for The Monthly called Faith in Politics. What we have seen in the past week is the breaking of that faith. It will take a long time, and more than just a charismatic party leader, to restore it.