David Cunliffe, the man who would be prime minister, made himself available for three long interviews. The Herald has interviewed dozens of family, friends, former colleagues, schoolmates and teachers, trawled public records and newspaper and magazine archives.

Today, in the first of a two-part series, we investigate his family background, outline his life up to he entered politics and discuss ambition, love, scandal, duty, faith and present his lineage to King Dick Seddon, New Zealand's longest-serving premier.


David Cunliffe grew up fast with his eyes looking forward. He was a long and lean teenager who locked the scrum, caught a young woman's attention with his taut abs, his keen mind and his sense of purpose; a young fogey who didn't waste time or talent. As a student he hogged the limelight — he even played Jesus in the school production.


There are several cross-roads that hold political significance in Cunliffe's life. His father's death in 1991 is one. The Reverend Bill Cunliffe died of a heart attack fishing for salmon in a favourite spot on the Rangitata River when his son was working as a diplomat in Washington.

Read more in our David Cunliffe series:
10 things you didn't know about David Cunliffe
David Cunliffe: Me and John Key

"In Washington, two things happened at once. My Dad passed away and I started asking those questions about what do I want on my obituary, what's life all about, really about. Is this what I'm here to do."

"I remember one morning driving down Massachusetts Ave towards the embassy and thinking, I'm going to get there and read the morning cable clip, the summary of the overnight telegrams, and if I keep this job I'm going to be doing it for the next 30 years. It's not to knock it, the foreign service is a great job and I was privileged to do the posting but I just felt like I was well down the tree and not a decision-maker. There is a book about foreign affairs that is called An Eye an Ear and a Voice, and that's how it felt. It was really interesting for a while but I couldn't make any decisions. So I thought, let's give life a whirl."

There was more study to come — a Masters in Public Administration from the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to add to an arts degree in politics with first-class honours (Otago), a post-graduate diploma in economics (Massey) — and several years as a business consultant with Boston Consulting Group before he made his move into politics, but it may be that it was there and then that his horizon shifted from public service to becoming a politician.

After 13 years in parliament he came to reconsider that choice following a bruising attempt to unseat Labour leader David Shearer which saw him sent to the Siberia of the back benches with another shot at the leadership not on even the distant horizon.

"Oh yeah, it was a big disappointment. And politics is never a lifestyle choice and it's not a financial choice. You do it because you feel really passionate about it. I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it, and Karen and I discussed it [leaving]."

No way would have been content to go, says Price. The son of a vicar is on a mission.
Politics may be in the blood much farther back than when his father, the vicar of Pleasant Point, joined the Labour Party in the 1970s.


Family roots



has confirmed that the Cunliffes came from Lancashire and that King Dick Seddon is indeed a relative and possibly the reason Cunliffe's forebears emigrated.

Cunliffe told the Herald that he was aware growing up that he had a famous distant relative.

"Dad mentioned it once or twice. I don't think it was a big thing in the family." He recalls on a school trip to Wellington posing by the towering statue of his ancestor in front of Parliament House. "I remember standing at the bottom of King Dick's statue and feeling very proud."

He and his family were unsure exactly where the country's longest serving premier fitted in the family tree. The Herald has pieced it together dating to the early 1800s using births, deaths and marriages records and newspaper archives. Cunliffe comes from working stock on his paternal side — a foundryman, a stationmaster, a vicar — and farmers, businessmen and soldiers on the other.

Richard Seddon was Cunliffe's great-great uncle. Seddon's sister, Phoebe Ellen Seddon married William Cawley Cunliffe in Trinity Church in South Port, Lancashire, in 1863. Within a decade of marrying they were settled in Greymouth, quite possibly at the behest of the future premier who had arrived on the West Coast, via Australia, in 1866.

By 1873, Cunliffe's great-grandfather was working at the town's Dispatch Foundry Co, from which he retired 38 years later. A report of his retirement in the Grey River Argus described him as "sober, steady and industrious ... a true, tried and trustworthy servant ... a tradesman of the highest order". He received a retirement gift of "a well-filled purse of sovereigns".

William and Phoebe named one of their 10 children after the father. William Cawley Cunliffe (II) married Blanche Walsh and moved to Ngahere, 15 miles north-west of Greymouth on the Grey-Reefton railway line. There, as stationmaster, he oversaw the transportation of coal and timber. It was in this hamlet in 1915 that Cunliffe's father, William Richard Cunliffe, was born. Cunliffe believes his father was the first in the family to go to university; he gained a BA and a degree in theology.

Tragedy strikes

Cunliffe's father met his first wife while drumming up support in Whangarei to start a Sunday school.

"They say if you want to find a man he won't come to your door, but that is exactly what happened in my mother's case," says David Cunliffe's half-sister Pamela Loh. In 1944, a handsome curate married Joan Hodsell, a primary teacher whose talents as a pianist were put to use at that Sunday school.

During the next nine years, they had four children, interrupted by the Anglican vicar serving as a padre in Japan in 1947 with the occupation force. The first child, a son, was named William in keeping with family tradition. Next came daughters Pamela, Darien and Angela. They are David Cunliffe's half-siblings.

The Rev Bill Cunliffe and wife Joan were married for 17 years when Joan, 45, died suddenly of heart failure due to an aortic aneurysm. Her death proved to be cataclysmic for her children who were aged 15 to seven, and for Cunliffe's father. Soon after, the family moved from Hamilton to a parish in Te Aroha and eight months after Joan's death, Rev Cunliffe married Barbara Tuke, an intrepid nurse who had travelled widely and worked in Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprising.

These were deeply troubling times that affected the children throughout their lives. Their father couldn't cope, David's half-brother Bill says. He was of the generation that could hardly poach an egg and he was better at his parish duties than as a father of young suddenly-bereaved children. Bill sees his father as strong but says his sisters may see him as weak because he was unable to give them what they needed at that time. It was tough for all, particularly his sisters. "For them, it was a game of two halves."

Barbara came in and picked the family up. She was a nursing matron, Bill notes, an organiser, a stickler for table manners. It was a new way by a new mother who was not their mother. But it wouldn't have been easy for Barbara either. Bill remembers his father explaining his decision to remarry so soon to his parishioners.

Barbara — aged 90 and living in her own home in Timaru — was pragmatic and a powerful influence in young David's life. "I might volunteer this," says Bill. "David started with a very organised mother. Then he had another strong woman, his wife Karen. And he had another strong woman in his political career, Helen Clark."

David Cunliffe was born one year and eight months after his parents married, followed by Stephen two-and-a-half years later. But they weren't a blended family for long. By the time they moved to Te Kuiti in 1967 the four half-siblings had gone flatting, to boarding school, or to live with relatives.

Pamela says their father wanted them to all be together and was helped by housekeepers in the months after her mother died. She recalls reading David Winnie the Pooh, and then she was gone. "The children were not catered for at all as far as grief counselling went. I didn't get on with my step-mother and she didn't get on with me really. I went to live with my mother's sister in Whangarei. She was my lifesaver."

Despite the history Pamela and Bill say their half-brother is loyal and involved in their lives. Bill tells of Cunliffe and Price coming to his rescue when he was at his lowest ebb having lost everything in the kiwifruit industry and having, at age 53, to pick himself up and start again. Cunliffe suggested he go to university and loaned him the money for his fees even though they had a mortgage. "He had faith in me. He probably doesn't know my story — just that I went through tough times."

Pamela stayed with David and Karen in Wellington and Canberra when he worked for the foreign service. "To me, David is a superior person ... I don't see many bad points. He's always been very considerate and loving."

School days

Pleasant Point High School was a small school in a pleasant town surrounded by neat farms. Timaru folk voted Labour, the farmers National. The little school punched way above its weight in the years Cunliffe attended, and he was the school's heaviest hitter. Eric Feasey, the headmaster at the time, summed up the view of many teachers and pupils when he said Cunliffe was held in high regard and would make a good leader.

"I worked hard, played hard," is Cunliffe's assessment. He offers a detail that doesn't sit with the official picture of a model student. "I had a sense of fun. Occasionally that spilled over into a bit of naughtiness. I let off a stink bomb in history once and I had a scrap in social studies. Actually I must have been interested in politics because I remember it was him calling me a Labour poof that ended up with me taking exception."

His academic prowess is plain to see in the pages of the school magazine, The Pointer. He won prizes for maths, science, general excellence and industry, chess, drama, debating and public speaking. In the seventh form, he chaired the school council and was head boy. The keen rabbit-shooter even conducted a school firearms safety demonstration, and he was a lock in the First XV.

A third-form short story about death, titled The Old Man, showed depth ("It is ironic that the one thing that comes to the rich and the poor is the thing the rich fear and the poor await."), while the head boy's report expressed his lofty goals for the school council.

He left school in September of his seventh form year for Wales on a two-year World United Colleges scholarship to Atlantic College. The school mag dedicated a page to Cunliffe's selection, noting his "conscious development of his intellectual faculties and a tremendous ability to work hard and long".

"The common stereotype of a successful student ... as a weedy colourless swat is one that David's example quickly disproves ... It is not easy being successful in a society that dislikes difference and pre-eminence, but David was popular with both staff and students here."

Cunliffe became politically aware during his seven years living in South Canterbury. His father became chairman of the local branch of the Labour Party, turned from National, according to half-brother Bill, by the inspirational Norman Kirk. "This is right in the middle of the farming community," says Bill, "and he's the vicar and a Labour Party member — he probably lost half of his congregation!"

As Cunliffe tells it, his father's work gave him a window into the struggles of life, of people at crisis point, even though his parents tried to shield him. He tells of whispering that such and such had "committed S". "And I said, OK, I know what suicide is, you don't have to talk in code."

"I think it's true that in a vicarage you do see all sorts of stuff and you do get your eyes opened perhaps younger than you otherwise would. The family break-ups, the car accidents, the domestic violence, it all comes through the vicarage."

Money was tight. "You get a free house and a stipend which is minimal."

The boys would help their father work the enormous family vege garden. When the old wringer washing machine broke down in Te Kuiti, it was a big deal. "Mum took a job doing nightshift at [the] hospital, just so they could get enough to replace the washing machine and get a few other things. Here she was working being Mum all day and working the nightshift." Cunliffe, who worked in a chip shop after school, attributes his work ethic to his parents.

The gift of the gab

Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

In Cunliffe's sixth form year, the debating team won the national schools Jaycee Cup, an unprecedented feat for the school, eulogised in a Timaru Herald editorial on the theme of small schools being able to take on the best. "It was exciting," recalls Helen Steven, who with fellow fifth-former Sarah Feasy made up the young team. "In all of the public speaking competitions, David was the one to beat."

Cunliffe was unusual, she says. "It was about him not being childlike in his childhood. He was a deep thinker and he engaged in the big issues, which made him unusual in our community at the time. The debating topics were quite meaty — that was his comfortable place, thinking about what really matters."

"It was a little co-ed school in a farming district. You had to be pretty thick-skinned if you were different and he was a standout. I think he had a level of resilience."

Pleasant Point High School's all-conquering debating team of 1979 beat Wairarapa College in the quarter finals. On the way, the team dropped by Parliament where Cunliffe posed by the Dick Seddon statute and grew indignant in the public gallery watching the Health Minister casually reading a newspaper during debate. "David was horrified," says their debating coach Wendy Hurst. "'That's who is running the country,' he said."

Cunliffe had the job of lead speaker, a role suited to a logical thinker who was very good a setting out the team's line of argument, says Hurst, an educator at the South Canterbury Museum. "David was also very good at interjecting and trying to put the opposition off." Though a good tactician, he was prone to overdoing it. During an upset win over Christ's College, Hurst recalls gesturing with her finger over her mouth. "He wouldn't look at me. In the end Sarah nudged him and pointed as if to say, 'shut up, you!' He had a grin on his face, he knew jolly well what he was up to."

"I thought a lot of the bloke. I respect people who work really hard. The three kids and I worked every lunch hour for six months. We didn't get there by twiddling our thumbs."

Cunliffe played Jesus in the school production of Dennis Potter's 1969 play Son Of Man, a secular account that portrays Jesus as a rebellious carpenter wracked by self doubt about his own divinity. He was very good, says retired drama teacher, Ian Simmonds. "He gave everything 100 per cent. He had flare and imagination ... and because he worked hard, he got a bit of stick."

He was in command of language, says Simmonds. "You don't get in the debating team without having a way with words."

Teen poet

A formative moment in teenage Cunliffe's life was finding a copy of Dag Hammarksjold "magnificent personal diary", Markings, in his father's study. The collection of thoughts and poems was published after the second Secretary-General of the United Nations died when his plane crashed mysteriously in the Congo in 1961.

Cunliffe still does the "odd jotting" but wouldn't show the Herald. Once bitten, twice shy: He made "the mistake of inserting a couple of ditties" in a Fulbright alumni speech. The National Party found them on the web and read them out in parliament. "I think it was Gerry Brownlie. They had fun with it."

However, we found one called Grassroots, written at the time of the civil war in Cambodia, which won a 16-year-old Cunliffe second prize in the school senior creative writing competition.

High overhead,
A shell wails.
Does it matter?
The effect when it lands is the same...
In their thousands they flee.
Caught between the hammer and the anvil,
Or the 'sickle'
Fleeing from the jungle of fury,
Do they know,
These haggard skeletons,
That we sought to 'protect' them?
Do they care with their 'Pol' pot bellies?
Do politics mean as much to them ...
As food?
But, we say,
It's not our fault!
Why should we pay
For a war we didn't
They are people.
And people,
Can only, die once.
But for us
Their time has ... Come.
The Grass
Roots ...
On their graves.

Growing up in Wales

An academic rival at Pleasant Point High says Cunliffe's political awareness — "he wanted to the Prime Minister" — was matched by a wider awareness of opportunity, such as the scholarship to Atlantic College in Wales. "He did things that probably most of us wouldn't even have thought about or known about."

It was a good school, the source says, it did let pupils know that they could achieve. "It was a bit of a shame that that place got shut down and it was when David's Labour Government was in. Some of us were a wee bit disappointed because it does affect the whole community when something like that happens."

Cunliffe told the Herald he spoke to Trevor Mallard, who was education minister, and the local MP Jim Sutton to see if anything could be done but the facts were hard to ignore. "It was the smallest school in the network and its roll was declining. It was a great school in its day. It had great staff so, yeah, there is a sense of sadness but don't blame Trevor. I think Labour didn't get any votes out of Pleasant Point for quite a long time after."

Atlantic College was a life-changing experience for the 17-year-old small-town Kiwi. "To use a Tolkein analogy, I'd been plucked out of the shire and plonked somewhere else."

"You probably got the picture I did pretty well academically at Pleasant Point High, but the truth is it was a small country school. Over there everyone was on scholarship. I was one of 400 kids from 65 countries who were all merit-selected. Put it this way, I had the lead in the school play at Pleasant Point [Jesus] and I couldn't get a part as a tree in the Atlantic College play."

Students ranged from Africans to "flash-Harry Europeans". A conference the school ran on world religions was an eye-opener for the vicar's son. "There I was, from a quite conservative background, with Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Bahai's, realising first hand that these kids who were my age were at least as committed and sincere about their faith as I was about mine. So why did I think mine was the only way to enlightenment? It was a big shock to the system."

He found personal faith in his early teens — rather than simply accepting his father's — which remains an important foundation and a driver of his values. "I've never thought evolution was bogus, just look at the fossils. And that's a long sweep of time; the world didn't literally get made in seven days. Are you kidding? That may have put me at odds with some people I grew up with in South Canterbury who took things perhaps more literally." He now sits at the more progressive end of the theological spectrum. "But do I sense some greater design or purpose in things than saying it's just random evolution? Yes, I do. So do I believe in God? Yes I do, in some creative force. I wouldn't say it is an old white guy with a beard, but some creative force that has an energy that people can tap into. I utterly respect that."

Welshman Richard Jones, a good friend from those Atlantic College days, says Cunliffe was noticed. The year voted him the student most likely to be a world leader. "He had that confidence, that beautiful ability to debate," says Jones, a cardiologist.

The pair were in a lifeboat unit together. Having designed and built an Inshore Rescue Boat from scratch, they patrolled the south coast of Wales. Jones says he knows another side to Cunliffe's slightly-smug public persona. "When you are close to him he is not at all a proud person. He is always cracking jokes, always seeing the funny side. I sense he is too guarded in public life. It's difficult for politicians now days. If they appear unduly flippant they can be savaged. So you have your guard up."

The college was founded by German educationalist Kurt Hahn (who was also involved in setting up the Outward Bound Organisation) in response to the search for new and peaceful solutions in a post-war world riven by political, racial and economic divisions. "It was very idealistic for teenagers and I think that must have been part of how David was inspired."

Cunliffe returned to a South Canterbury winter a different person. He filled the months until going to Otago University planting blackcurrent bushes and as a shearing gang rousie. He calls it his "winter of discontent". "The good parts about that was it was great to do physical labour. I got really strong, played some decent rugby but I felt very much like a fish out of water. I'd had this amazing period of stimulus and then it went very flat. I'd done a lot of my teenage growth and development ... I had fundamentally changed in those two years away. It must have been hard for my parents."

Left a boy, returned a man? "In some ways, yeah. I had a girlfriend, an American, in my second year at Atlantic College, who I was quite fond of and had to wave goodbye to. That was probably part of why I was feeling a bit down in the mouth that winter too."
Soon after arriving at Otago University, romance was again on the curriculum.

University and marriage

He met Karen Price, a law and music student, in the first week of the university year. By August they were engaged, a year later they were married; the bride was 19, the groom 21. They met at the "Knox [hostel] Hop" during orientation week. Her friend and his roommate went as a date and they tagged along as chaperones.

"I thought he was pretty dishy," says Price. "He was tall, countryboyish with a long blond afro and a washboard stomach. I thought he was very attractive."

Cunliffe: "We became part of a peer group that all got to know each other. I think we ended up going out four or five months later. We had some classes together; we were in the legal systems tutorial of Mark Heneghan, Dean of Law now. I think it's fair to say the other kids didn't get a word in edge ways."

Prof Heneghan noticed: "It was nice to see them moving closer to each other and the little glances back and forwards," he recalled in a 2013 interview. "They were pretty keen on each other right from day one. They were the strongest arguers against each other."

Cunliffe talks first about her smarts (and his) when asked what appealed. "She was an outstanding student, [there was] a huge intellectual connection, very much a match of equals." Prompted, he adds: "A lot of attraction as well, dashing Scandinavian good-looks on her part. She was a flash Aucklander, and I remember going up to Auckland and being teased that I didn't have decent shoes. In some ways I was still a country boy from Pleasant Point."

He doesn't remember writing her poems.

Yes, he did! Price confirms in a separate interview. They privately discussed letting the Herald read one. She reported back. He said: "I don't think they need a poem." She said: "But they were such lovely poems."

"What I do recall," continues Cunliffe in our interview, "is selling my motorbike to buy an engagement ring. It was a Honda XL 185. It went well, but Dunedin is a bit icy to be a really good motorbike place in winter. So ... an engagement ring was an altogether better use." Decent ring? "We called it the little sparkler."

His father presented his son with a ring he found it in a bag of peat moss. "It just happened to be the right size," says Cunliffe slipping it off to show the inscription. "We had it engraved: 'David and Karen'."

Price has more details. On the chaperone night, her future husband asked, "do you want to go outside and look at the moon?" They talked all night but she left not knowing his name. Next day, per chance, her friend saw "a nice couple of guys" with their shirts off sunbathing. One was Cunliffe. "That's how I knew he had a washboard stomach," says Price.

She tracked him down via his roommate and tied a small bag of passionfruit to his door handle. She's certain he copped some ribbing about the imagery of the gift, not that he let on. "He was so rude, he didn't even acknowledge them!"

In April, she attended his 20th birthday "as a guest, not an item", and a few months later he proposed. When he decides something, says Price, he moves fast.

Marriage set them apart from the undergrad pack. Michael Laws, who was in the "exceedingly egocentric debating club" with Cunliffe, described him as a "young old fogey". He was "strange", Laws wrote last year, because he was a married undergraduate, because he was "ever so slightly old-fashioned" and because he had clear ambition. "I say 'clear' because he knew what he wanted to do, when, and the day of the week it was going to occur. We had a rough idea of where we wanted to go — David had the GPS co-ordinates."

Cunliffe worked in a bar to pay his way and after a year in the hostels, the couple lived in various flats. One was a block on the St Kilda beachfront which they managed in exchange for free rent. There, in poor south Dunedin, he says they confronted "raw underprivilege, and social dysfunction first hand". In one of the flats lived a drug pusher who had a weapon and a long list of convictions. "What do you do with someone who is selling drugs, keeps a shotgun in his apartment and won't pay rent and the bailiffs are too scared to come." The police, he says, weren't going to do anything about it. "It showed me the limits of the law."

He and Karen would babysit for a young solo-mum who lived in another of the flats. "She had used marijuana and possibly other drugs when pregnant and the baby was possibly impaired." The baby's father would come to the flat occasionally. Cunliffe and Price would hear angry voices, perhaps worse. "I remember thinking then, how this little baby was starting life well behind the card. It was an import counterpoint to all the theoretical stuff I was learning [at university] about inequality or under-privilege. I was facing it. I was thinking about that baby when we launched our best-start package this year."

David Cunliffe graduates MPA Harvard University 1995. Supplied 27 JUNE 2014
David Cunliffe graduates MPA Harvard University 1995. Supplied 27 JUNE 2014

After graduating, he had the pick of government departments, rejecting Treasury in favour of a career in the foreign service. "In terms of salary and excitement, Treasury was the one, but in the end, I had the feeling of just not being able to go and work at Treasury in 1987 because it was just a monastic brotherhood for Roger Douglas. I thought at least with Foreign Affairs, I can learn how the world works and there is no sort of paid-up subscription view required."

A period in Wellington was followed by postings to Canberra and Washington where the idea of being a politician, rather than a public servant, grew after the death of his father in 1991. A fellow junior desk officer at Foreign Affairs in the 1980s has described Cunliffe as "nakedly ambitious". Massey University's Dr Claire Robinson stands by her published comment (which Cunliffe disputes) that he wanted to be PM back then. "We started calling him 'Cunners'. It worked with his name but it also worked because we thought he was so cunning."

One on one he was a "perfectly affable nice guy", she says. In public he tries to make himself seem more ordinary. "He is not your average New Zealander, full stop. He's been aware of that and he's tried to make himself much more of that I'm-down-with-the-homies kind of guy. If he was only honest about who he is, then there wouldn't be all these questions about who is the real David Cunliffe, because he would be accepted for who he is, which is a bright ambitious bastard. There's nothing wrong that. Just cope with it and make the most of it."

Death of a father

"He was a gentle man," says Cunliffe of his father. "Dad's philosophy was a fair go, the benefit of the doubt."

Hunting and fishing was the Rev Bill Cunliffe's escape from duty and Cunliffe and Stephen often accompanied him. Cunliffe inherited his father's love of fishing. "That's my favourite hobby. I have a rule that when you are on the water, you don't think about what happens on land."

The Opihi River, north of Pleasant Point was his boyhood playground. "I used to go there a lot with a fly rod. I never caught a hell of a lot but it was just a beautiful, bucolic relaxed place to grow up."

You would find father and sons at the mouth of either the Opihi or the Rangitata when the salmon were running. "That was kind of the highlight. Dad was very present in our lives. Dad died baiting up his line to go salmon fishing in the Rangitata. He was at the river, in his favourite pool, with a mate. His heart just stopped beating and he keeled over. It was sunrise on a beautiful day. If you have to go, that is a good way to go."

His father had his first heart attack aged 55, chasing pig dogs up a hill in Te Kuiti. "It wasn't through lack of exercise. We almost lost him a couple of times in Pleasant Point during his 60s. He was 76 ... you could see it debilitating him."

Cunliffe considered not taking up the schoolboy scholarship to Wales because it meant spending two years overseas. "Dad had had a big-time heart attack. I remember saying to him, 'Dad you're not well enough, I can't go', and, a tremendous loving thing to say, he said, 'this is a fantastic opportunity. How do you think I'd feel if you didn't take it?'"

On news of his death, Cunliffe rushed home from Washington, where he was working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, went to the spot where his father died and caught a salmon.

"I just felt I wanted to go down there and do that; a beautiful 21lb salmon. We smoked it and shared it with all the family gathered for the funeral. I thought Dad would have been pleased about that."

Epiphany in Washington

"In Washington, two things happened at once. Dad passed away and I started asking those questions about what do I want on my obituary, what's life all about, really about. Is this what I'm here to do." There was the epiphany on Massachusetts Ave, the appeal of diplomacy had faded. Cunliffe wanted to be a decision-maker.

To be any good at politics, he felt he had to learn how the private sector worked, how it reacted to incentives and penalties. So he won himself a Fulbright scholarship to Harvard's John F Kennedy School of Government, topped up by he and Price selling their home in Wellington and working as house servants for two "slightly eccentric macrobiotic vegetarian [Price did the cooking] professors".

In 1995, he worked as a functionary in Ted Kennedy's senate re-election campaign. It was exciting and an eye-opener because of the professionalism and resources. A phone bank in west Auckland was half a dozen people with mobiles sitting in someone's office. "A phone bank in Boston was 300 lines in a hall with catered food. That's the difference."

"I sort of felt politics beckoning by that point. It was a great liberation having been a buttoned-down apolitical diplomat for eight years."

After graduating from Harvard, he became a business consultant, first in Boston, then in Auckland. By then he had Parliament firmly in his sights. Maybe politics was always in him. "I've wanted to do this job since I was 10 years old," he told the Listener in 2000. "I guess I have deliberately sought training that would probably enable me to do it well."

Since 10? the magazine asked. Ah-huh. "For some strange reason, I have felt driven, called to do this."

A candidate named David

After returning home, Cunliffe met Judith Tizard for coffee, then worked on her 1996 Auckland Central election campaign. In the next election, he won Titirangi with a majority of more than 5,000 and his career as a candidate was off with a hiss and a roar. Too much hiss, the champion schoolboy debater gained a Beehive reputation for impetuosity and a dressing down by the Speaker for heckling before he'd even made his maiden speech.

Whether he is seen as too preachy, too calculated or in too much of a hurry, after 15 years in parliament Cunliffe is still more loved by rank and file party members than caucus colleges. He accepts he made a neophyte's error. "If I'm honest ... I didn't follow Holyoake's dictum of breathing through my nose for the first year. And it would have been better if I had in hindsight because it invites tall poppy syndrome and I copped a bit of that. I deliberately reined back ... There were a lot of people who had been there longer and it's about respecting your colleagues and respecting what they have weathered. I came in on the tide in 1999. I don't think I really understood then what a tough time had gone before. That's why you should keep your mouth shut and your ears open until you do and I didn't and I might have polarised a few people at that time. I hope I have learned from it."

Read more in our David Cunliffe series:
10 things you didn't know about David Cunliffe
David Cunliffe: Me and John Key
Read our John Key feature from 2008:
John Key: The man who would be PM
In search of John Key
You can receive special editions of the Herald Unauthorised Biographies of David Cunliffe and John Key. Register now at nzherald.co.nz/ebook for details.