And now, proof positive that at least one thing really was better in the otherwise misty past. That’s the business of the political put-down, which once was conducted with imagination, intellect and more than a little humour. A candidate for best Canadian political one-liner of all time is surely NDP leader David Lewis’s 1969 description of Pierre Trudeau, delivered during a House of Commons debate. “There but for the grace of Pierre Elliott Trudeau sits God,” said Lewis. Then there was the NDP s Tommy Douglas describing the Liberals, who, he said in 1965, “talk about a stable government— but we don’t know how bad the stable is going to smell.” Or consider John E Kennedy’s elegant disavowal of suggestions that he had pencilled in a rude description of John Diefenbaker on a piece of official paper during a 1961 visit. “I could not have called him an S.O.B.,” said Kennedy later. “I didn’t know that he was one—at that time.”
Fast-forward to the present campaign, and you could look long and hard at the remarks of all five party leaders toward each other without raising even a snicker. There’s no problem with quantity—for all that we prize ourselves on being more genteel than Americans, the Bush-Gore campaign battles arguably featured a lot less hyperbole. Here, most exchanges are conducted along the lines of schoolyard yo mama stuff. Consider the manner in which the two principal leaders have characterized each other: Stockwell Day is a Neanderthal lying in wait to blow up the country’s health-care system, and the PM is an arrogant old man who stays in office only to feed his desire for power, and to reward his friends. All right, so they might be onto something in one or both cases—but if those are the predominant images that emerge from an election campaign, you understand why so many people tune out. For those who gritted their teeth and endured all of the Frenchand English-language debates, the enduring image is of those two men and the backup Greek chorus of Alexa McDonough, Joe Clark and Gilles Duceppe, all shouting at each other in a high-volume cacophony.
The right to be publicly rude to others is a cornerstone of Western democracy. But you wonder who politicians think they’re pleasing when they do so—other than their most rabidly partisan supporters, and relieved members of the media, whose stories immediately become much easier and more colourful to report. Come to think of it, maybe that’s the answer: when Day finally dropped his so-called “agenda of respect” and went after the PM hard for the first time a couple of weekends ago, you could almost feel palpable sighs of jubilation and relief from reporters covering him. The Globe and Mail concluded that he simply dropped the “somewhat phony gentility of Mr. Day’s agenda of respect.’”
And, the paper said, by “ratcheting up the rhetoric on Mr. Chrétien, the Alliance leader avoided having the national media dwell on the topic.”
Those observations raise a couple of points. If Day was previously masking unpleasant thoughts by speaking politely about his opponent, isn’t that actually the very definition of gentility, rather than a contradiction of it? And why did the national media feel compelled to dwell on the topic, since there’s no evidence of any kind that ordinary Canadians were insisting that their leaders start mudslinging. Whether by coincidence or not, Day’s support numbers actually fell in the week after he began slagging Chrétien, according to polls conducted by Environics Research.
In this case, in fact, the media have effectively behaved like our own special interest group, pushing the leaders to behave in ways that suit reporters and editors. Onetime journalist and longtime communications consultant Bill Fox, in his 1999 book Spinwars, wrote about the manner in which journalists, if we’re bored by a topic or don’t understand it, immediately look for a simple, more sensational subject. In fairness, both national newspapers have done a good job of laying out the platforms of all the parties. But there remains a sense that when Day refused to play the game at the outset by furnishing nifty, nasty sound clips, he broke with tradition, and had to be punished. We saw the same phenomenon a couple of months earlier, when Day suggested it might be a good idea for the PM and leader of the Opposition to meet privately and informally from time to time, to freely discuss national issues away from the white heat and noise of the House of Commons. That’s an interesting suggestion: it shouldn’t be the end of the world for opposing leaders to agree from time to time on items of national interest. But it would have marked a break with tradition—and in Ottawa, that’s pretty much never a good thing.
Actually, when it comes to examining the manner in which elected politicians treat each other, it’s worth noting how much they differ from the rest of our society. Most people, confronted by others they dislike, treat them with elaborate courtesy in public—and later, in private, give vent to their real feelings. Opposing politicians, on the other hand, make a point of being as rude to each other as possible in public—but then, in private, are usually quite polite. As the writer H.L. Mencken once noted: “Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule—and both commonly succeed, and are right.” That’s the way the game is played, with lots of sound, fury and verbal pyrotechnics—as the PM learned long ago. Now, Day plays that way, too. Too bad.
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