Tag Archives: Question Time

A Rebuke that Stuck

James Callaghan The Guardian
      James Callaghan                              The Guardian

Neither poetic nor profound, these dozen words still capture  the exasperation of trying to reach a person whose view of the world cannot accommodate the truth. 

Sometimes a perfect response will stick for a lifetime.  A person captures in a few words all of the intangibles that seem to be in play when an encounter ends with an impasse.  So it was with a former British Prime Minister who spent his share of time facing questions from the opposition in the weekly parliamentary ritual known as Question Time.  Questions to the Prime Minister give members of the opposing party a chance to query the leader of the government they would like to replace.  Policies are challenged.  Priorities are questioned.  That’s the parliamentary system, making the Wednesday session  with questions the high point of Britain’s political week. The meeting of the two party leaders–fueled by an impatient Prime Minister in waiting—is often better than what is running in any given week on Broadway.

And so it was when Prime Minister James Callaghan rose to answer questions from his opposite just two swords length away, each standing in front of separate little podiums known in the House of Commons as Dispatch Boxes.  It was 1976 and the beginning of his three stormy years as leader of the government.  His interrogator at the time was the formidable Margaret Thatcher, who would eventually win the general election when Labour party unity collapsed a few years later.  But in 1976 his Government was ready for all comers.

Callaghan uttered a simple phrase of exasperation that I have never forgotten. Neither poetic nor profound on it own, somehow its dozen words managed to capture the angst that comes when trying to reach people who have locked themselves into a belief that cannot accommodate what you have said.

Better than most, Callaghan understood the impossibility of moving a rock that has no intention of being budged.  I have a hunch his response had  long been a part of his rhetorical repertoire.

After an exasperating exchange over the state of the economy where he was challenged on some basic numbers, these perfect words were spoken in a tone of regret and gentle rebuke.

“I can tell you the truth,” he said, “but I can’t make you accept it.”  

It’s a perfect comeback to other members of the species who cannot free themselves to acknowledge the facts on the ground.

Several reasons make the response apt.  It affirms the speaker’s belief that some statements cannot be negotiated away as mere opinion.  At the same time it judges the intransigence of the listener more in regret than in anger.  And that’s the right note to strike when others in the room need to be reminded that an interlocutor  is incapable of dealing with the obvious.

Perhaps the closest American parallel is in the famous courtroom showdown is in A Few Good Men, Rob Reiner’s 1992 legal drama. Young military attorneys press a career commander played by Jack Nicholson to reveal more of what he knows about the death of a Marine at the Guantanamo base in Cuba.  “I want the truth Colonial Jessup!” demands the young and callow lawyer.  After a few beats the older man works up a full head of steam, and he rages back with the line that defines the film: “You can’t handle the truth!”  Jessup has heard all he can stand from the young Lieutenant whose military experience has been confined to a few months in the Judge Advocate General Corps. “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom.”

The whole scene with its line about handling the truth is a great movie moment.  But Callaghan’s rebuke is the more elegant of the two.  It can be said in a whisper and be just as effective.  It bites more completely with its tone of dismay for the inability of the receiver to accept the world as it is.  If Colonel Jessup’s comment is a chainsaw in full throttle, Callaghan’s words more quietly cut through resistance like an industrial laser.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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PMQs: What Americans are Missing

Dispatch Boxes (Lecturns) in the House of Commons Parliament.UK
Dispatch Boxes (Lecterns) in the House of Commons

What many in Britain consider a stale feature of their system would be nothing less than a breath of fresh air in ours.

The beginning of a presidential election season in the United States is now greeted by voters with an understandable amount of dread. To be sure, we want to celebrate the idea of elections. No one should be cynical about a system that insists on the consent of the governed. But it is hard to look at the truly awful media spectacle that has unfolded thus far and still be optimistic about our national political life.

Most Americans know that something is seriously amiss, even if it’s not clear how to redeem the campaign process to become what it currently is not: an opportunity for a great national awakening. We have “debates” that are really just joint press conferences, as well as seriously reduced coverage of any candidate that isn’t a poll leader. The reliable Tyndall Report notes that to this point Donald Trump has gotten nearly half the press coverage among all the Republicans seeking their party’s nomination. Moreover, we are saddled with prime-time stories from cable news outlets that constantly verge into “he said-she said” name-calling, as well as too many reporters spending most of their time interviewing other reporters. With the exception of a few serious news organizations, even larger news outlets seem to be averse to boring their audiences with substantive discussions of candidate responses to pressing national and international crises. It’s become so bad that what many in Britain consider to be a stale tradition within their system would be nothing less than a complete breath of fresh air for ours. We could really use something like Parliament’s weekly round of Prime Minister’s Questions (available for viewing at C-SPAN.org).

Every Wednesday Britain’s Prime Minister is obligated to appear in the House of Commons and face questions from leaders of other opposing parties, with the greatest number of queries coming from the leader of the largest faction out of power, and possibly the next Prime Minister. This is the system in most western parliamentary systems, working reasonably well in Australia, Canada and a number of other countries.  What it allows is a lowering of the Constitution-mandated wall between the legislative and executive functions that exists in the United States. Reducing that wall makes possible the kind of discourse that is needed in times when leaders need to be on the hook to find solutions to serious national problems, such as our chronic lateness in passing a federal budget. Frequent and direct debate between the leader of the government and those in opposition has a way of reminding everyone of significant issues in dispute.

Prime ministers generally have a good idea of what they will be asked about. And those doing the asking are not above framing questions to score some easy points against the party that actually has to govern. But Question Time has two huge advantages over American divided government. One is that questions in the House of Commons are not filtered through journalists scrambling to get screen time while also trying to function as surrogates for the other side. All that exists between the “dispatch box” of the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition is a distance of two sword lengths, a prudent design decision made long ago by British parliamentarians. The second is that name-calling and personal attacks won’t cut it in PMQs. It’s easier to call an opponent a liar to a reporter than to the opponent’s face. Direct debate without intermediaries means that questions will have to deal with affairs of state. Discussing anything less looks like evasion.

It’s a weakness in our system that nearly all of the political “debate” that occurs happens in the circus of campaigns, or sequentially through speeches by Presidents and congressional leaders given to their most ardent supports. Except for the yearly trek to Capitol Hill for the State of the Union Address, we simply have no mechanism for our national leaders to publicly argue the merits of their ideas in the presence of each other. The debates that do occur are usually private, when congressional members or their staffers meet with White House officials to iron out compromises. In the process, robust public discourse in the world’s greatest democracy withers. On most great issues the best we get is yet more sequential press conferences and the empty posturing that comes with them.

The problems hinted at here are myriad and complex.  But its hard to not conclude that our governmental system is broken in part because it depends too much on the press–what optimists used to call the “fourth branch of government”–to report the excruciatingly tough issues that those who govern must address.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu