The currently ubiquitous Tory MEP Daniel Hannan has a distinctive intellect and eloquence, though he exercises them in causes and convictions that I disagree with more or less completely. Still, on his blog today he has written what seems to me the best, most passionate commentary we’ve yet had on Gordon Brown’s latest pillorying, an event (in the sense of 'media event') that has made me, for better or worse, angry and emotional, as it clearly has many others.
Here is Hannan’s most distinctive point, and the means by which he illustrates it:
“Now for a hard thing that needs saying. When people are in anguish, they deserve our respect and sympathy, but their opinions don’t become any more or less correct. If you lose a loved one to a dissident IRA bomb, it doesn’t make you an overnight authority on the Northern Ireland decommissioning timetable. Remember the episode of West Wing where Toby is prepping the President in advance of a campaign debate. How would you feel if someone raped your daughter? “I’d want the guy who did it tortured, executed – that’s why I shouldn’t be the guy who gets to decide”.”
This is the sort of tough-minded and fundamentally non-populist sentiment to which nobody holding high political office is allowed to give voice, if indeed they hold it. So Mr Hannan’s ‘iconoclast’ status has usefully served to put it out there into the atmosphere.
Just on a tangent, though – I never watched The West Wing and wouldn’t watch it now, though I never heard the end of its virtues from members of its vociferous fanbase. One thing I’ve never liked about the intersection of Hollywood and liberalism is its tendency to make drama in which presidents and prime ministers are idealised combinations of virtues, compounded partly from real political lives and partly from fairytales, thus reflecting the deep disappointment of diehard liberals in the Blairs and Clintons they actually end up with. Or even, per the scene cited by Hannan above, the Dukakises.
For this was one of the ways in which the Democrat candidate of 1988 came unstuck, wasn’t it? For the second televised debate, moderator Bernard Shaw opened up by asking the staunchly anti-capital-punishment Dukakis if he would favour the death penalty for an offender who had, let's say, raped and murdered his wife Kitty? Dukakis must have felt a tad violated himself, but he stuck to his pre-prepared, anodyne script. It seemed, though, that the public would have prepared him to exhibit a little more passion over Shaw’s scenario. Whereas the backstage Dem wonks would have loved him to answer in the way Martin Sheen (?) managed to answer ‘Toby’ in West Wing a decade or so into the future.
In any case, overnight Dukakis’s poll numbers took a bad hit – this great news for George Herbert Walker Bush, whose military service record was one Democrats could only dream of. Then again, Bill Clinton turned out not to need one of those come 1992, though the movie Independence Day would go ahead and invent a US president who looked like Clinton but flew a war-plane like Bush senior.
Flesh and blood, though, are our leaders, and just as flawed as the figures of drama. Quite often they have to speak their best in the heat of the moment just like the rest of us, rather than reading out the lines of Hollywood’s finest and best-paid scribes. I don’t think I’d want audiotapes of my most awkward telephone conversations put into public circulation and picked over by the ghouls of The Sun. Thankfully they’re not interested; but I do think a lot of us have found the mental exercise of putting ourselves into Brown’s shoes to be a worthwhile one, on this otherwise very regrettable occasion.
The Brown photo is (c) Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett