Saturday, October 4, 2008

American and Canadian political debates

This past Thursday night was political night on television. In the U.S., the Democrat nominee for vice-president, Joe Biden, squared off against the Republican Sarah Palin. And in Canada the leaders of the 4 national parties and the leader of the Bloc Quebecoise did a round table debate with the admirable Steve Paikin as the host.

I watched all of the American debate and the last 30 minutes of the Canadian.

First the Canadians

I have already made my mind up about how I am going to vote and this debate wasn’t going to change it. You would have to be a non-committed voter watching a televised debate to allow that spectacle to sway your thinking. Most non-committed voters are people who don’t really follow politics.

I was glad to see that the Green Party finally got media recognition and invited its leader, Elizabeth May, to the table. This has been overdue for a couple of election cycles and puts an end to the hypocrisy of inviting Gilles Duceppe of the BQ to the English language debate.

The BQ is not a national party; it is a regional one, running candidates only in the Province of Quebec. Its purpose in its creation was to try to pry Quebec loose from Canada and create a sovereign state out of that province. The sympathy for that has mostly died away in Quebec and now the party simply acts as a spoiler for the national parties trying to make inroads into the Quebec constituency. Duceppe has said that if he can’t free Quebec he will take Canada for all he can get for his province. He has been a federal politician long enough (18 years) to collect a handsome pension from Canada when he retires from politics. So I guess he will have achieved part of the second goal.

While I completely understand having Duceppe at the French language debate, he has nothing useful to say to the rest of Canada in the English debate and only wastes air time that could more usefully be employed for the leaders who matter. He is invited because Quebec would scream discrimination if he were left off the roster.

Another case of the French poodle’s tail wagging the English setter.

There were many glowing media reports about Elizabeth May and what a performer she turned out to be. I cannot judge because of the limited time I devoted to watching, but I found her irritating, as every time the Prime Minister tried to make a point she butted in from the sideline trying to talk over him. I was dismayed to find that electoral reform is part of the Green Party’s platform – they want to give us Italy’s government. Thankfully, they appear to be many years away from ever being a possible governing party. I should mention, while I am analyzing them, that they want to make water a “human right”. This is a really stupid idea.

Finally, I did not like the round table format. I have done this on television and it gives you too many opportunities to fiddle with your hands, twitch, look down at your hands, etc. You are never 100% sure which camera is on you and whether you should be looking into the cameras, at the moderator or at any of you fellow panelists. You don’t know whether you are leaning forward too much and looking too aggressive or sitting back and looking too laid back. It is very awkward. I much prefer the format that requires you to stand at a podium. It focuses your attention and helps you to control your body language.

The next day I listened to a radio call-in show and so many callers commented on this or that candidate’s posture or eye-contact (or lack of. None of that should be relevant to the issues– these are not movie or television stars vying for industry performance awards.

Now to the Americans

I had been following the Palin story with much interest and had viewed her dismal television interviews. I knew very little about Joe Biden.

Palin got quite a lot of complimentary coverage the day after her debate. Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal compared her performance in reviving McCain’s campaign as a pair of electric shock paddles used to restart hearts. Cute.

Frankly, I was somewhat appalled by her. She talks in clich├ęs and slogans. She simply refused to answer some straight-forward questions and went back to topics that she felt she was comfortable discussing. This is a tactic I am sure that her handlers taught her and it works well in media interviews, but not in a formal public debate. There were just too many things that were asked that we do know what she thinks about them or whether she even has any thoughts about them.

There was a clumsy attempt to inject a Reaganism into the debate. At one point Palin accused Biden of always looking to the past. Later, when Biden again made a reference to the Bush record, she jumped in with a “there you go again, Joe, lookin’ at the past”, aping Reagan’s famous line that skewered his opponent. I cringed when she threw that one out.

There is a streak of admiration in America for small town or rural folks. We have seen this time and again portrayed in movies and on television: The Beverley Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, The Dukes of Hazard, and the Newhart show: you will recall the sophisticated Bob Newhart running a Vermont country inn and meeting two local characters, “Hi, I’m Daryl and this is 'mah' other brother Daryl”. Americans believe that such folk are genuine, honest and lack guile or evil motives. This is why such movie and television fare always commands a fairly respectable audience.

And, who can say whether that is myth or reality?

However, appealing as such innocent folk might be, do you really want the Duke brothers to be the President and Vice-President of the United States? Or Minnie Pearl, bless her heart and trademark price-stickered straw hat?

Many commentators, including Daily Show comedian, Jon Stewart, have lamented the “dumbing down” of the American voters.

The first time we saw this was when Dan Quayle was the Vice-President. After listening to a few of his Quaylisms everybody prayed for the health of Reagan. My favourite was when he opined that he regretted that he had dropped Latin in high school because he wanted to go to Latin America and be able to talk to the people there.

Then along came George W. Bush. He gave us such classic lines as, “There is a low voter turnout for elections because not as many people are going to out to vote.” We have had 8 years of his folksy bumbling and inarticulate mangling of the English language. And maybe those who like Bush see him as somebody they would sit down with in the local tavern and hoist a few, but, really would you see the guy you do go bowling with and stop off for a couple of quick drafts as the President of the United States?

A problem Americans need to understand is that one of the reasons the U.S. is considered in such a bad light by the rest of the world, aside from considerations of its policies and actions, is the perception that the person holding the highest office and representing the face of America talks like he is a dummy, and, therefore, perhaps he is one. There is hardly a top job in corporate America that would be filled by a person who spoke English as badly as George Bush if merit were the only criteria for the job. Most world leaders in the democracies have a good command of the language, even when their native language is not English.

[Full disclosure: we had our own folksy politico, Jean Chretien, who was not very adept in English, but he wasn’t elected for the same reasons I have attributed to Americans electing such people]

That brings us to Sarah Palin. She talks like a country hick: dropping the “g” off words ending in “ing” and constantly saying “gonna” instead of “going to”. She is full of “goshes” and “darns” and just shy of "gosh darns". This may appeal to America’s common folk and maybe the standards in such remote places as under-populated Alaska don’t require much in the way of sophistication to become Governor, but on the world stage – please.

Americans who think Palin is suitable to be the President are probably scratching their heads over the wildly enthusiastic reception that Barack Obama got on his short European tour. Part of it, of course, was the fact that he represented the possibility of a real change in America’s policies of a kind to which Europeans would be receptive, but part of it also is that he is a beautiful public speaker with a rich command of the language. To Europeans, the proper use of language is a very important cultural identity (French) and a sign of class (England). The gold standard of political language still remains with Winston Churchill. Bush and Palin wouldn’t even have been allowed into the same room with him if it were a public speaking contest.

On the other side of the stage was Joe Biden. He struck me as being not only intelligent, knowledgeable and thoughtful, but also articulate and polished. I could easily picture him representing the United States with dignity and respect. And he would be treated with respect by the rest of the world.

I don’t vote in the United States (although I pay taxes there) but the choice if I had to make it would be clear: an Obama/Biden ticket. And in saying that, I guess I have to take it back that I would not be swayed by a debate. I certainly was in this case.

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