Whatever the impact of the election on the rest of the country, for television it means the welcome disappearance, temporarily at least, of the political personality cult. All four party leaders have become as familiar as old shoes. Trudeau has exhausted his capacity to shock, Stanfield to bore, Lewis to excite indignation and Caouette to amuse. They have canceled each other out. Obviously it’s
time for at least one new political leader in Ottawa.
A TV appearance by any of the three party leaders (Caouette has become invisible outside Quebec) is likely to have a negative effect. For an election in which the price of food is a central issue they all have an alarmingly fat and glossy look: Prime Minister Trudeau has fleshed out and adopted a jocular, paternal manner; angular Bob Stanfield of the Conservatives, wearing horn-rims to hide the droop in his left eye, looks positively rosy and the NDP’s David Lewis, who used to appear disheveled and bristly, as if he’d been up all night wrestling with a particularly corrupt capitalist, has acquired the sleek, unctuous grin of a Cheshire cat who has dined too well on scraps from the Liberal table. With their jowls and pinstripes and boutonnieres they are reminiscent of Uncle Louis, George Drew and the gentlemanly politics of the Forties. Theirs is the manicured, suntanned complacency of corporation lawyers and oil executives, the beaming corpulence of men accustomed to steaks and soufflé Grand Marnier in the parliamentary restaurant, the preening of prime steers fattened for slaughter. When they open their mouths I expect to hear a gentle, contented moo. It’s not an image that goes down well with a TV audience sitting down to an austere supper of macaroni and cheese.
The elegant Gatsby style which isolates the party leaders from ordinary people is reflected in their language, which is ponderous, archaic, so weighted with slogan and cliché as to be almost meaningless. We should be thankful, I guess, that Bob Stanfield can blurt out anything at all, but it is incredible that Trudeau, who once
had the nation hanging on every witticism, should, in six years, develop an unrivaled capacity for talking pretentious jargon in an offensively condescending manner. The public Trudeau speaks high Canadian, a language of full-blown words, baroque phraseology and perfectly constructed paragraphs; on TV, where if something can’t be said in 30 seconds it’s not worth saying at all, this literary langauge sounds quaint and bombastic. David Lewis’ vocabulary is more colloquial but he suffers from a fondness for the rolling phrase and eloquent peroration. It’s a debater’s style learned as a schoolboy and honed in the House of Commons, a language which bears very little resemblance to the blunt, vivid street Canadian spoken by the rest of us. This inflated English is also the television rhetoric used by Richard Nixon, who is casting a long shadow over the Canadian election.
Nixon was sold to the American people on television and it was via television that he unintentionally revealed the breathtaking discrepancy between the sanctimonious public Nixon and the foul-mouthed private Nixon of the Watergate transcripts. The collapse of Nixon’s credibility has thrown all TV political packaging into disrepute — there will be no selling of the prime minister. The fashion is now the reverse, a return to honesty and simplicity, a fashion that will stand Bob Stanfield in good stead. Stanfield’s straightforward image may or may not be real (Mackenzie King was at once the dullest and kinkiest of our prime ministers) but it will, I suspect, carry more authority with the public than Trudeau's flashy clothes or Lewis’ righteous indignation. Yet even at his most painfully sincere Stanfield cannot be called a real television asset.
The fading of the political stars likely means a shift of emphasis to local politics, to the legions of candidates slogging door-to-door, and more concentration on issues — the easiest way to get on TV, as David Lewis found last time around, is to make news. Perhaps in time for the next election it will mean an improvement in regional political coverage, those soundings of the grass roots which Canadian networks now do so badly, if at all. The political temper of the country is not reflected in the style of the national leaders, especially when they are all without support in certain important geographic areas. We need reporters who can give an authentic portrait of the mood and opinion of a particular constituency, a portrait that reflects the views of the people
who live there, not the wishful thinking of the party faithful. Most people can sense which way their own constituency is going to vote long before the election; last to know are usually the reporters up in a jet scribbling down the wisdom of a party leader who has just gleaned his information from other reporters. Good political television is not a commercial for a personality nor a glib summary of a party press release.
This will be the last election for probably one, possibly two or three of the party leaders. It’s a pause, a breathing space before the next onslaught of television conventions. Forget the TV. Sit out in the yard. Grab a candidate when he comes by and get some answers to your questions, face to face.
THIS MONTH’S TV LISTING
Watch: Canadian Feature Films (CBC —starting Sunday, July 21, 9 p.m.) Six-week series of important Canadian movies.
Watch for: Let’s Do It (CBC — starting Wednesday, June 26, 7.30
p.m.) Sports show featuring physical fitness.
Double Up (CBC — starting Monday, July 1, 9.30 p.m.)
Interview — quiz show with Hart Pomerantz and Warren Davis. Beware: The Whiteoaks Of Jalna (CBC — Saturday, 8.30 p.m.)
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.