Back in the Day:
I grew up in Deer Lake, Newfoundland. There, our Member of Parliament would hold court outside of town at the Irving Gas Station, the kind with a diner. He would set up, order supper at the corner table by the window, and people would trickle in to speak with him – until coffee turned to beer and
it was time to move on.
Nov. 17, 2003: George Bush’s security is tighter than ever as he heads off to another staged media event in Britain: picture him posing with his wife in front of Air Force One.
Nov. 18, 2003: Paul Martin is “patiently” waiting for his chance to take the PM’s seat in Ottawa after an uncontested rise to Liberal Party Leadership, while Jean Chrétien showboats for the tenth consecutive month since he declared his quitting of the office.
The fundamental figure in politics is the personality, the politician. This is different from the man who is a politician. The President Bill Clinton that was questioned about his relationship is not the same President Bill Clinton that we’d find watching football and drinking Budweiser. (Which I assume he does. It is the King of Beers, after all.) But then again, if we were there watching him pound a cold one in sweatpants and a Dolphins t-shirt, we’d be watching the ‘President’ do those things, and the only reason for us to be watching him would be because he is President.
Can we tell the difference? Does it even matter? Media theorist Marshall McLuhan figures that “Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.” These days, politics have become essentially the collection of the images of those politicians.
But what is that image exactly? Take the Parliamentary ‘scrum,’ in contrast to the White House press conference. Ronald Reagan once said, “Politics is just like show business.” How a scene is staged determines how the characters are seen on the screen. The scrum and the press conference are essentially two different ways of staging our interaction with our political leaders.
For those who don’t know, the scrum takes place after the House of Commons adjourns, when our duly elected representatives are harangued by members of the media in the corridors of Parliament Hill. Whoever made the biggest splash that day gets the most attention, surrounded by journalists thrusting miniature tape recorders and microphones in their faces.
The Press Conference:
It takes place in a room in the White House, with the journalists sitting in chairs arrayed before a podium at the front with the President’s emblem on it. The Press Secretary briefs the members of the media and answers questions, and sometimes the decision-makers come to comment, but not always. Questions have to be recognized. By whom?
The performance of politics in Canada is very different from that in the US, and the Scrum v. Press Conference allusion hits key elements of that difference. The contrast between the chaotic in-your-face scrum and the ordered Q&A that takes place in the White House’s briefing room is too dramatic to ignore. Fundamentally, the contrast is between the two political systems. The United States political system is focused on the President, the man, to the point of exclusion. The government, elected and appointed, appears to be there to facilitate his agenda. To some extent this is true in Canada, but not to the extent it is true in the US. The distance between the President and the ‘people’ becomes greater, and between them is placed the moiety of the presidential hierarchy. Questions are filtered up and through the Press Secretary and other presidential facilitators. Spontaneous, unadulterated questioning of the President in public media forums is kept to a minimum. The paint-by-numbers formalism of the Presidential press conference reflects this. Conversely, after the House lets out, the Prime Minister is subjected to direct and enclosing interaction with the press. Whereas the President seems to hold a briefing and question conference at his whim, our Prime Ministers appear much more available and open to the public. Or, at least you’d think so.
But, remember ol’Ronnie’s words of wisdom. It’s show business, remember? Acting aloof and removed from ‘the people,’ as George W. Bush does, is as much an act as appearing off-the-cuff and accessible. After all, it is merely a matter of how you like your spin served. Show business at its root is the art of storytelling, and politics shares the same proclivities toward half-truths and clever fictions.
So I’ll return to my tableau of rural Newfoundland’s political interaction. What used to take place in the Irving diner is becoming a thing of the past. As big-box mega stores are destroying small independent businesses in our nation’s downtowns, mega-politicians are eradicating the regional representative. The MP for Deer Lake in 1986 was performing the ‘political’ act, but he was a face that could be held directly accountable. He was not a distant image on the TV; he was a man drinking beer in the Irving diner up the highway.