Politicians who possess the ability to dish out smart and memorable retorts without seemingly batting the proverbial eyelid are oftentimes seen by some as rude; facety, as we say in local parlance. That which some call facety, others classify as maverick.
Universally, folks love public figures who can think on their feet whether on the political stump and or in Parliament. In politics the world over there has been — and I suspect there will always be — extensive admiration, worship even, of politicians/public officials who possess the gift of the gab.
Last Sunday two friends and I got to talking about retorts, classic comebacks, and gems in local politics which splashed out onto the public pavement in recent times. We sifted through seven names, inclusive of K D Knight, J C Hutchinson, and Bruce Golding. Two to one, Edward Seaga got the nod as the retort king of local politics. I am quick to add here that there is a difference between retorts and the spewing of purely corrosive abuse. Some, of course, will argue that the two are indistinguishable. Others will say, not so. Either way the concentration here is retorts, classic comebacks, and gems.
The comeback master
Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, as I see it, was the master of comeback, especially in the face-to-face arena of local politics. Seaga was no slouch on the political stump, but he was not a great platform orator like former Prime Minister Michael Manley, who had a unique gift to electrify audiences with his immense charm and charisma.
Seaga had a spectacular ability to provide a pithy, bouncy political comeback in a flash. He made Parliament lively. I like a lively Parliament. I believe that where there are vibrant democracies, parliaments are usually lively.
For me, once the business of the House is not hijacked by useless barracking and ranting adversarialism, I am satisfied. I maintain that healthy exchanges which elicit sharp intellectual adrenaline rushes are good for democracy.
There was a time in this country when we took our political disagreements to the streets, whether during, in the middle of, and/or after an election campaign. That did not work well for us.
I believe we should leave our representatives to vigorously debate contentious matters in Parliament. This is certainly better than the return of violence to the public pavements. With all due respect, those who want a quiet Parliament best look to places like Peking, Moscow, Pyongyang, and elsewhere that are dying under the awful dead weight of boredom and rigidity.
Seaga was not easily fazed. I watched many interviews in which the interviewers tried their best to trip him up. He almost always remained cool as a cucumber.
I also watched several of his presentations in Parliament. He was almost always unfazed by upheavals in the House, even while at the lectern. Journalists could always depend on Seaga for sound bites and headline-grabbers. Some of Seaga’s off-the-cuff remarks landed him and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in hot water, not because many of the comments were corrosive, but because a prejudiced and consciously blinkered pseudo-intellectual class who then controlled most of the levers of media continually bombarded John Public with a jaundiced view of Seaga and the JLP.
Many politicians only think of a riposte, if at all, long after a conversation has fled into permanent form, by then their comeback opportunity is long gone. On the international political scene the late Prime Minister of Britain Sir Winston Churchill, and the late John Wilkes, journalist, poet and member of the British Parliament, were famous exceptions.
Consider this: “Multiple reports claim Lady Astor once insulted her colleague Mr Churchill, in around 1940, by claiming: ‘If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.’ He supposedly retorted with a cruel remark: ‘Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.’ (The [UK] Express, November 15, 2019)
This specific incident involving Churchill and Lady Nancy Astor, the first female Member of Parliament in Britain, has been disputed by some sources according to the mentioned Express news item.
Consider this too from the Express article noted here: “Another legendary tale of Mr Churchill’s witty rebuttals, which has been attributed to both Lady Astor or the socialist MP Bessie Braddock over the years, criticised the former prime minister for being intoxicated while he was working: ‘Winston you’re disgustingly drunk!’
“He famously replied: ‘My dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.’
John Wilkes was a politician who attained international fame primarily because of his constant defence of free speech in 18th century Britain. He was probably more famous though for his ripostes than his championing of freedom of press.
Several credible sources agree that Wilkes was physically unattractive. But what he did not possess in good looks he made up for in his ability to quickly and cleverly weave words together beautifully.
Wilkes’ lack of good looks was often used as a political weapon against him. Trustworthy sources say Wilkes would always beat back his attackers so much so that they ended up looking stupid and/or intellectually adrift.
Consider this excerpt from a documentary aired on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on March 3, 2008: “There was an aristocrat John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich or Lord Sandwich, who once said to Wilkes, “You will die either on the gallows or of the pox.”
Wilkes immediately replied, “My Lord that depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”
Here at home, Seaga delivered many ripostes inside and outside of Parliament that will be talked about for years to come. He was a master of seizing the moment to deliver smart remarks which registered with his immediate and wider national audiences.
Ponder this: “On an occasion where his microphone malfunctioned, ‘I regret that we have on this occasion commenced with a malfunctioning mic. That is a problem we have had to live with for a year,’ said Seaga poking fun at his political opponent Michael Manley also nicknamed Mike, November 1, 1980, swearing-in as prime minister.” (The Gleaner, May 28, 2019)
Consider this: “Former leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), the late Edward Seaga, was never timid to make comments on political platforms that many deemed politically incorrect. Seaga triggered public speculation in the 1990s about the then prime minister’s sexuality when he sounded off from a campaign platform that no one had ever accused him of “Boom, bye, bye”, referencing the lyrics of Jamaican dancehall deejay Buju Banton, who seemingly advocated injury to homosexuals. In an apparent response to Seaga’s jarring remarks, P J Patterson charged that the comment was the worst attempt at demonisation by the JLP.
Patterson, in language characteristic of his non-confrontational style of politics, declared in an interview with the then Breakfast Club‘s hosts Beverley Anderson-Manley and the late Anthony Abrahams: “My credentials as a lifelong heterosexual person are impeccable.” (The Gleaner, February 20, 2022)
Seaga was adept at silencing his opponents. Here is one of his gem reactions to a niggling issue which his political opponents at the time derided him. Check this: “When the People’s National Party goes on the platform, they don’t have anything sensible to say. All they talk about is who is sick and who is healthy. It has reached the stage now where the prime minister has had to show them his health certificates to show that he’s not sick. I don’t have to show health certificates; I am full of vim, vigour and vitality.” (October 1, 2002, JLP rally, Denham Town, Kingston Western, The Gleaner, May 28, 2019)
At the Denham Town rally Seaga was also reported to have said, “If you want to know about my bill of health, come look inside the crib at my yard.” (Loop Jamaica, May 30, 2019)
Seaga’s great contribution to national development is a subject I have previously discussed here with copious evidence. I believe the full gamut of his rich contribution is yet to be fully understood and/or appreciated. I visited him while he served as Distinguished Fellow in the School for Graduate Studies and Research at The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. On one occasion I asked him if he had any regrets about devoting his entire adult life to the service of Jamaica.
“No, no, and no again,” he said.
People deserve decent pay
Our political leaders need to be among the best paid in this country. This is necessary, to among other things, help attract the best and brightest to serve. I have been saying this for many years in this space. I maintain that position.
Those who are shouting for the resurrection of the 10 plagues of Egypt to be visited upon the Andrew Holness-led Administration because of this banner headline ‘Salaries soar — Big pay increase for political directorate, permanent secretaries’ need to horridly get off the hamster wheel of ‘bad mind’ (envy), ignorance, and antediluvian thinking.
The Jamaica Observer news of last Wednesday said, among other things: “Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke on Tuesday sought to provide context in defence of the revised salary bands for legislators and other members of the political directorate, saying that annual adjustments have been made across the entire administrative leadership level of the public sector in order to attract and retain high-calibre leadership. He also announced that telephone and housing allowances previously enjoyed by members of the political directorate will be discontinued.
” ‘After years of macroeconomic stability, the path ahead will require that we are able to attract new blood into the leadership levels of the public sector to infuse new ways of thinking, new ideas for the organisation’s own growth and development,’ he said. ‘Persons need to be encouraged in making career moves into public leadership without putting their economic security at total risk,’ Dr Clarke added.
The adjustments will see the prime minister’s salary move from the current $9.169 million as at 2021 to $22.332 million with effect April 1, 2022, then to $25.267 effective April 2023.”
Dr Clarke’s reasoning makes eminent sense.
Of course some will deliberately blind their minds and eyes to his logic. These selectively myopic thinkers have helped to retard this country’s growth and development for years. At the same time, many of them enjoy First-World-type lifestyles.
Some months ago I watched a documentary on the BBC which recounted Tony Blair’s victory in the 2001 General Election in Britain. A section in the documentary showed Blair returning to 10 Downing Street in London — the official residence and office of the prime minister of the United Kingdom. The staff at number 10, as is customary, queued and greeted the prime minister. Blair then met with his Cabinet Secretary Richard Wilson (now Lord Wilson), who put to him a very important question: “Now what?”
Taken aback by the question, but still revelling in the sweetness of victory, Blair replied: “What do you mean? ‘Now what?’ ” Blair quickly understood. His cabinet secretary meant that winning a landslide victory was the comparatively easy part of the political engagement. Governing and delivering meaningful results which improved the lives of especially ordinary Britons was the bigger challenge ahead.
This is the real challenge ahead for the Holness Administration in light of the implementation of public sector compensation review. Folks are asking, “Now what?” Folks will now expect massive improvements in representation/results from the political directorate and, indeed, all public officials. They will not wait very long either. Those improvements will have to start registering on the political dashboard in very short order.
On the subject of our political dashboard, last Tuesday Julian Robinson, Opposition spokesperson on finance, said this in parliament, “Madam Speaker, the Opposition takes no issue with what the minister has announced.” Was he on frolic of his own? Hours later the People’s National Party (PNP) put out a statement which, among other things, described the mentioned increases as “morally indefensible”.
Here again is another instance in which the PNP is demonstrating discontent with a society that no longer exists, and showing itself to be a party which is trapped in the web of an unusable past. Will any of the PNP; MPs or councillors forego the increase? I bet none will.
Garfield Higgins is an educator, journalist and a senior advisor to the minister of education and youth. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.