Earlier this month the National Archives of Canada opened an exhibition of newsreel and broadcast reports called Beyond the Printed Word. Stretching from flickering film images of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897 to the color videotape of Rick Hansen completing his Man in Motion tour in Vancouver in 1987, the exhibition—on display at Ottawa’s National Museum of Science and Technology-makes most of the major stops along the way.
Tommy Burns defends his heavyweight title in 1907; a general strike paralyses Winnipeg in 1919; Prime Minister Mackenzie King, looking and sounding remarkably as portrayed in the recent CBC-National Film Board series, gives an uninspiring speech to mark Canada’s Diamond Jubilee in 1927; the Dionne quintuplets are paraded about for crowds of tourists in 1936; CBC Radio reports a great victory at Dieppe in 1942; King and 60,000 others greet Barbara Ann Scott on her return to Ottawa after winning an Olympic figure skating gold medal in 1948; Hurricane Hazel blasts Toronto in 1954; Duplessis wins a fourth term as Quebec premier in 1956; Saskatchewan doctors protest medicare in 1962; the Beatles arrive in Toronto in 1964; Pierre Trudeau wins the Liberal leadership in 1968; the Parti Québécois wins the 1976 Quebec election; Terry Fox announces the end of his 1980 Marathon of Hope in Thunder Bay.
The exhibition is designed around a dozen television monitors. At each, a visitor can choose, by punching the appropriate button, from among a number of specific newsreel or broadcast snippets in a particular period. He can watch a bit of This Hour Has Seven Days from 1965; a clip from the Conservative leadership convention of 1967; an excerpt from the Jean Lesage-Daniel Johnson television debate of 1962. He can see Bruce Phillips reporting from Parliament Hill for CTV during the FLQ Crisis in 1970, John Diefenbaker handling a media scrum in 1966.
The Seven Days clips were a great favorite when the exhibition opened. Fascination with horror drew younger people to the news coverage of John Lennon’s murder, and some slightly older people couldn’t get enough of Richard Nixon’s resignation speech. “I loved it then and I love it now,” one man said. But a real cult following developed around an item from 1960, entitled Poli-
ticians' Early TV Jitters. Visitors would watch it twice, then return with a friend to watch it again.
It is budget night in Ottawa, March 31, 1960. On the CBC National News, Earl Cameron introduces Norman DePoe, who is standing outside the House of Commons chamber. DePoe sums up the Tory budget, a balanced one with raises for 50,000 public servants, then introduces spokesmen for the opposition Liberals and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation to comment. Clearly, it is a new experience for both. And it is a new experience for many of today’s viewers, seeing politicians rendered that uncomfortable by a mere TV camera.
The Liberal, William Benidickson (Kenora-Rainy River), looks fairly poised, but he talks over DePoe’s introduction, saying, “Good evening. Good evening, Mr. DePoe,” while DePoe is asking the first question. Benidickson then goes on to put forward a perfectly
Modern politicians are television-smart They know all the tricks. Why is it we sometimes long for Mackenzie King?
legitimate statement of the type we have grown to expect under such circumstances. “Well, as we know that there were no tax changes of consequence,” he says, “in that the overall change in ways and means, I think, was only two million out of something involving more than 6,000 millions of revenue, and my point was that the people who were most or should be most concerned about today, those that are not benefiting by some increase in gross national product, the unemployed and others, have found very little encouragement if any in the budget proposals.”
Benidickson’s words are about what a modern-day politician would utter, but while he makes them he has a way of rocking up on the balls of his feet to punctuate a statement, then settling back on his heels. Since he is seen only from the waist up, the effect is somewhat magical. His body slowly ascends two or three inches, then comes back. The impact on the viewer is to make him stop listening and start watching for the MP’s next ascent.
Erhärt Regier of the CCF (BurnabyCoquitlam) is next, and his entrance re-
sembles that of a man approaching a firing squad. Trying to appear casual, he strides into camera range with his right hand in his jacket pocket. He grins, in what appears to be terror, at the camera at the same time as he realizes he needs his right hand to help the left one shuffle through his notes.
After extricating the hand, Regier speaks reasonably, saying that a balanced budget (which Finance Minister Donald Fleming has presented) is appropriate when inflation threatens, but adding the charge that Fleming has not learned the lessons of the Hungry Thirties. The words would look fine on the printed page, but as we see Regier speak them to the television camera two things become apparent. One is that he has not found the right place in his notes. His hands continually shuffle the pages. Secondly, Regier has a slight speech impediment that traps him on certain syllables—such as those that begin the words “budget” and “Thirties” and the initials “CCF.”
While all this is going on, Norman DePoe stands by, not interrupting and admirably deadpan, except for a quick sidelong glance toward the camera during one Regier stumble. The net effect is half comic, half sad. Two politicians have tried, and failed, to maintain their dignity in the face of a television camera.
Why, then, do we wind up feeling more warmly toward these two politicians than we do toward many of their successors? Probably it is because the parliamentarians of today have mastered the medium. They have advisers, coaches, people who tell them how to stand, what to say, where the hands go, what color tie to wear, where to look. Modern politicians are TV-smart. They would not have a hand in the jacket pocket. They would not bob up and down on the balls of their feet. And if they had any difficulties at all in speaking, their handlers would keep them away from the cameras. We know what modern politicians will say and how they will say it and what they will wear, and they rarely surprise us.
They have learned not to clear their throats, not to be strident, not to touch their hair, not to laugh nervously. They have learned how not to answer the question. They have learned how to avoid making mistakes on television. They know all the tricks. Why is it we sometimes long for Mackenzie King?
Charles Gordon is a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen.
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