COLUMN

Bring on the backbenchers

Allan Fotheringham July 27 1987
COLUMN

Bring on the backbenchers

Allan Fotheringham July 27 1987

Bring on the backbenchers

COLUMN

Allan Fotheringham

Television, as we know, is mostly horrible; an enormous misuse of a tremendous invention. It is mainly mindless pablum, junk food for the eyes, a series of goofy game shows and witless soaps—indeed the “wasteland” that U.S. television regulator Newton Minow labelled it years ago.

There is one thing television is occasionally good for (once every 14 years as it turns out). It is good for politics and politicians at special times. Fourteen years ago, Americans—and Canadians—watched mesmerized as a small panel of unknown congressmen cut down to size the Praetorian Guard of crooked lawyers who surrounded the crooked Richard Nixon, and became popular cult figures. Senator Sam Ervin, with his corn-pone pluckings from Shakespeare, was a marvellous figure, as was Howard Baker and a few others.

They achieved national stature through their TV exposure.

We now have a replay— another Republican president thinking he and his flunkies could operate above the law. The Gippergap hearings, with gavelto-gavel coverage on the boob tube, demonstrate the use that degraded medium can be put to. Again, hitherto anonymous names have become familiar (and compelling) faces to untold millions of Americans and Canadians.

Who could not be impressed by the shining integrity and calm eloquence of Lee Hamilton of Indiana, before this arresting theatre scene a mere veteran of the House of Representatives? Who doesn’t warm to the controlled inner fury of Senator Dan Inouye of Hawaii, who left his right arm in Italy fighting for his country and slaps down the vainglorious Ollie North and his yappy lawyer? When lawyer Brendan Sullivan whined that he wasn’t going “to sit here and listen” to this or that outrage, Inouye squished him as he would a mosquito. “If you’re going to listen, you’d better sit. Counsel, proceed.”

There are equally unrecognized politicians hidden within the recesses of the

Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.

House of Commons’ outmoded parliamentary traditions. The heavy-handed, out-of-date power of the cabinet above all prevents talented figures from all three parties from making a mark on public consciousness.

If the Ottawa system had the courage to give more power and exposure to Commons committees, one could see in such a televised hearing the country taking note of an energetic little squirrel called Ian Waddell—an NDP lawyer who has the tenacious nature of a pit bull terrier (and whose Vancouver riding, inexplicably, is in danger of being

legislated out of existence). One can see the courageous Warren Allmand of Montreal, still fighting for the same causes ever since being dropped from a Trudeau cabinet, exuding the same combative fairness that characterizes Senator Warren Rudman of New Hampshire.

There are too many faces (26) on this panel—as opposed to the seven that made Watergate so memorable—but some still stand out. There is the man who holds his tongue for a long time, then sears with it: Representative Ed Boland of Massachusetts. He is 75 and, with a face sculpted from rock, looks 60. He first came to Congress in 1952. He shared an apartment for 24 years with a fellow Boston Irishman, speaker Tip O’Neill (whose family stayed in Boston), the two of them known fondly as Washington’s Odd Couple. He stayed single until he was 62, when he took to the altar a 35-year-old lawyer and then had four kids in six years. They broke the mould with this guy.

There is Senator George Mitchell,

who looks as if he could be from Madison Avenue in his horn-rims, displaying the granite of Maine, where he really comes from. There is Louis Stokes of Ohio, who reminds Colonel North that he too fought in war, that his mother was a cleaning woman and one of her two sons ended up as the first black mayor of a major U.S. city (Cleveland) and the other became a member of the House of Representatives and don’t lecture me about patriotism, you little punk.

Television in a real setting reveals people—and it exposes them. Sheila Copps and her Rat Pack gang in the televised Question Period probably did more to demonstrate to the public John Turner’s lack of discipline over his caucus than anything else, long before his plummeting poll figures. The elegant Lucie Pépin, an otherwise obscure-to-theelectorate Liberal backbencher from Montreal, would be a sensation in such a nationally televised inquiry. Liberal Brian Tobin of Newfoundland, semantic tormentor of John Crosbie, would become a national icon in a similar circumstance.

Americans let it all hang out, letting the public figure out who is the fool—as the Gippergap hearings have revealed to be the unctuous senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch, a Republican sycophant unsurpassed. Hatch doesn’t seem to have heard that his President has filled the Supreme Court vacancy he so ardently desired.

The parliamentary system, supposedly requiring rigid party discipline, is being bypassed by the communications industry. MPs now sprint more for the 30second news clip than they do for serious work. Only when the Ottawa system allows them serious work—and serious loosening of party reins—will we see the estimable backbenchers, good brains and fine talents who are not allowed to flourish under the spotlight.

We all enjoy another country’s scandals, but we don’t have to wait for a Watergate/Gippergap of our own to allow our unknowns their hour in the sun. The Commons has the means—if it has the courage—to show Canadians our best, in all parties.