Columns

A pleasure watching old-style politicians perform

Keeble McFarlane

Saturday, September 08, 2012    

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IT is fashionable these days to look down on politicians. They are vain, self-centred, corrupt and an obstacle to progress, so the argument goes. They avoid hard decisions and take the easiest line of attack. They look out only for their own, or for those who are willing to pay. Yes, some of these statements are true, and all of them are true some of the time. But the majority of politicians are decent, honest, honourable people who are trying to do the best they can. Alas, it is indeed true that often the best they can do is not good enough for the situation at hand, but that, too, is human nature.

There is something about our politicians, though, that makes them stand out against a world of grey, dull, blah people. Our politicians, for the most part, understand and practise their craft much better than their counterparts in many other parts of the world. They know that when you ascend a platform, especially during an election, you have to entertain as well as inform the audience.

My interest in politics began early, largely because of that quality. As a youngster, I enjoyed attending political meetings because of the theatrical performances by the office-seekers on their makeshift platforms - usually, the back of a truck. The lead-in speakers acted as stand-up comedians, poking fun at their political opponents, leading the crowd in familiar songs, with the lyrics often altered to reflect current events.

These political figures went back to the period between the world wars, when the society was in a ferment because while the bananas, sugar, rum, logwood and pimento we produced fetched good prices abroad, the workers who planted the crops, harvested the fruits and converted them into other commodities didn't receive a fair share of the proceeds of their efforts.

These conditions gave rise to a new crop of public speakers - people like Marcus Garvey, St William Grant, Alexander Bustamante, AGS Coombs, Norman Manley, FLB "Slave Boy" Evans, Wills Isaacs, Ken and Frank Hill, Robert Lightbourne and Florizel Glasspole, to name a few. For the most part, these were self-taught speakers, learning the craft of public communication on the fly, as it were. In meeting halls, schoolrooms, the cane piece and banana field, from the backs of flat-bed trucks and elsewhere, they honed their craft, learning also to reach the folks on the fringe of the crowd without benefit of electronic PA systems.

Later political leaders learned their trade from these masters and added their own wrinkles. One of the best of that later group was Michael Manley, while his opponent of many years, Edward Seaga, was no slouch himself.

It was while I worked at RJR that I got to have a daily ringside seat to politicians of both tribes. I covered parliament for the last three years of my time there, and was exposed to a gamut of styles and abilities.

There was the Speaker, ECL Parkinson, who had a high opinion of himself and his office, and conducted himself accordingly, giving his rulings in solemn, orotund phrases. Norman Manley spoke in the measured, sonorous style he had developed in the courtroom. Edwin Allen, the long-time education minister, delivered his statements ponderously, showing off his hard-earned BA degree. Donald Sangster's style was workmanlike and plain-spoken, while Lightbourne loved to use soaring, pretty phrases and constructions. Glasspole modelled his style on Manley's, while Isaacs employed fiery language to explain the most mundane of subjects.

What they all had in common was the ability to think on their feet, to express their thoughts spontaneously with the occasional colourful turn of phrase. Not for these people the reading of statements prepared by some faceless bureaucrat. Oh, it did happen, but only occasionally, and was forced by the advent of television, with its limitation on the amount of film the camera crews were prepared to expend.

It was when I moved to Canada 40-odd years ago that I noticed a distinct change in political styles. Here, the scripted speech was the norm, the extempore delivery the exception. Sure, there were some exceptions - usually the old-time politicians from rural areas whose beginnings reflected those of the public speakers I was familiar with.

So you can understand how this week, I was so happy to see some real political actors at work at the national convention of the US Democratic Party. Sure, they were helped by the modern electronic prompting device known by its trade name, teleprompter, but in many cases used it merely as a guide and deviated from the written script in the manner of a jazz soloist. The president's wife, Michelle Obama, delivered an impassioned love story explaining why her husband should be sent back to the White House. The governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, who preceded her, was even more impassioned in his critique of his predecessor, Mitt Romney, who will carry the Republican party's banner in the campaign that's now on.

The stars of the event were to come later - former president Bill Clinton on Wednesday, followed by the vice-president, Joe Biden, and his boss on Thursday night.

Clinton obviously enjoyed himself as he employed all the considerable rhetorical tools at his command. He was by turns folksy, humorous, passionate, soft-spoken, humble, generous to his opponents and laser-accurate in skewering the adversary. The television pundits looking down from above immediately began wondering what Obama could do in the wake of this bravura performance.

Well, when his turn came, Barack Obama hit the ball out of the park. He also deployed an extensive range of oratorical devices, saying the election pits him against Mitt Romney as a "choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future". He pleaded that "I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy. I never have. You didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth." And, he went on, "The truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades." To thunderous applause with everybody in the packed arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on their feet, Obama asked for their support and the wider television audience for their vote. As president, the electronic prompter travels everywhere with him, but on this occasion it was as if it wasn't there, as it was with Clinton the night before.

I guess this kind of performance is more impressive to North Americans than it would be for us. I recall Seaga's first visit to Canada after becoming prime minister. His big appearance in Toronto was at a business luncheon before a couple of thousand people in the city's biggest hotel. Like Clinton, he spent the greater part of an hour explaining the problems his government encountered when it took office and what he intended to do about them. He held the crowd's attention even while quoting statistic after statistic. As we filed out of the room at the end of the address, I overheard two business types remarking at this ability to quote figures and make such a speech without a script or even notes. I smiled to myself and noted that what he had just done was business as usual in the place he came from.

keeble.mac@sympatico.ca

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