Hey, man, have you read Hansard? No...but I saw the show!
Hey, man, have you read Hansard? No...but I saw the show!
There is a new spot of honor for the big console television set in the National Press Club on the second floor of the Norlite Building at 150 Wellington Street in Ottawa. It sits in pride of place on a table in the corner of the lounge and there is now a daily coterie of shrewd observers—the veteran Mark McClung, the elegant former diplomat Charles Ritchie and a few others—at strange afternoon hours usually reserved for the electronic versions of Ma Perkins and the bathos-sphere. The occasion now is the daily live televising of the House of Commons question period and the fascination around Ottawa at how much it is changing journalistic practices as well as political.
The evidence is there on each floor stretching above the Press Club in this building where the offices of the country’s important papers, magazines, TV reporters and wire agencies are stacked one atop the other. Reporters have long grown used to the habit, when checking the time, of merely raising their heads and glancing out the window of this building to the clock in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill across the street. But now there is something even more convenient: the ability to keep on bashing one’s typewriter, or contemplating one’s navel, while keeping one eye and one ear keyed to the large color set in each office, where the Commons business is unfolding, in close-up.
It is not just that it now makes unnecessary the trek of some 150 yards across to Parliament Hill and a jostling for a seat in the overcrowded Press Gallery. The view on the boob tube in fact is better—just as the best seat in the football stadium is now in your den. Who has the telltale quivering of the hands? Spot that shifty, ill-confident eye, undoubtedly indiscernible from the removed precincts of the Press Gallery itself. The only thing missing is the instant replay of each burp, each example of tangled syntax and mangled grammar. The serious columnists and investigative reporters can stick close to their phones and their files across the street while leaving the “hot room” off the Press Gallery itself to those in need of filing for deadlines. It may not be an aid to the democratic process, but
it’s a boon to anyone wanting to save shoe leather.
More important is what the square eye has done to the public perception of political figures. Here, suddenly, is a new Pierre Trudeau—bereft of the structured, controlled TV studio background where Liberal Party strategists can select the set to suit the national moment and the makeup girl has oodles of time. Here, instead, is a
Pierre Trudeau continually on the defensive, carrying his painfully lacklustre cabinet on his back, bobbing and weaving verbally in semantic desperation over the RCMP farce. The accidental lighting is all wrong for him. The tired pouches under the eyes are naked in the cruel lights. All those intriguing facets of his sculpted face are emphasized, exaggerated. He appears stiff and humorless. For once, Pierre Trudeau appears vulnerable.
Equally, the public has been astonished to discover a Joe Clark unlike the caricature they have grown accustomed to read about. The press (this corner contributing its share) has painted a picture of an amiable young bungler who cannot jump a mud puddle, tie a reef knot or control his nervous tic. The electorate, therefore, came to the obvious conclusion that the Tory leader also could not put four sentences together. In fact, Joe Clark is a good university debater—which is all question
period is about. The first principle of war is attack and Joe Clark—since he doesn’t have to provide solutions in question period—has looked on TV to be a decisive, well-controlled critic. The Gallup poll proves it.
Years ago Marshall McLuhan predicted that color TV would create a need for hotter, spicier foods, more exotic furniture, and wilder clothing in men. As usual, he was correct, as witness the trend-setting uniforms of the Oakland Athletics and the standard fixture now around any convention, men dressed in what is known as “the Full Winnipeg”: white shoes, white belt, white tie. The Liberals as yet have not realized what they have loosed on the nation by allowing cameras into the Commons. Sartorial anarchy is about to burst upon us.
As anyone who has been on TV discovers, content matters little, appearance is all. The MP from Kicking Horse Pass has learned, to his wonderment, that the only thing that interests his TV-watching constituents is his tired, bulletproof blue serge suit with last year’s egg stains. It has been, for decades, the standard uniform for an Ottawa pol, as recognizable in an airline terminal as the short pants of a private school tad.
Now, thanks in part to the heat of the TV cameras and aided by the comments of their wives and girl friends, MPS (especially on the opposition benches) are discovering the Peacock Revolution two decades behind the rest of the world. Bette Midler, the Queen of Raunch, says her personal definition of bad taste is “double-knit polyester trousers.” The Tories may yet be Xrated.
It is a measure of the forward progress of democracy that the next election may hinge on which party learns, like thirdbase coaches in the World Series, that one can no longer shift one’s underwear with impunity. If you’re one of those who have managed to defy McLuhan and have not yet succumbed to junk foods that give you heartburn, do not fear. The full-frontal MP, with a Hawaiian tie and window-check sports jacket, may provide your life with more color than it really needs.
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