Constant coverage, sidelining opposing voices, word taken at face value; crises like COVID-19 are a boon for politicians - if they don't shoot themselves in the foot.
A lot of us are finding we have the luxury of unexpected spare time while we wait to bust out of COVID jail. I am happily using some of my newfound time to slog my way through Churchill: Walking with Destiny, Andrew Roberts’ brilliant and exhaustive examination of one of the greatest leaders of the 20th Century.
Winston Churchill is the complex and courageous man who emerged from 10 years of political exile to lead the United Kingdom through that country’s darkest hour in the Second World War. What is truly delightful about this work is that it tells the story of Churchill warts and all – his vanity, his oversized ego, his at-times spectacular mistakes and his – how can we put this gently? – at times anachronistic views towards race.
Churchill was not only a gifted speaker, but also someone who spent a lifetime polishing and refining the art of choosing les mots justes,and at delivering them at just the right moments to achieve the optimum effect.
There are so many one-liners from Churchill, a review of them shows how much he influenced the English language. One of my favourites, and one that resonates more than ever today, is this one that is generally attributed to the great prime minister: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Crises, as Churchill understood, are opportune times to bring about changes that would face insurmountable opposition in more normal times. Every political entity, at some point, has exploited a good crisis to get its own way.
Pandemics, such as this one, are just such a crisis, open to exploitation by the nimble-footed. We see companies, for example, tooting their own horns to build their brand as good corporate citizens. Some of it is starting to ring hollow. If I see one more commercial by a company claiming that “We’re in this together,” and “We’re here to help,” well . . . I might just hurl my face mask at the screen.
Incumbent leaders also benefit from crises, if they manage them well. In Calgary, Mayor Naheed Nenshi ensured re-election for himself when he showed poise and common sense during the 2013 flood. In the current crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump has command of the U.S. media, and – were it not for some spectacularly stupid moves – he would have a lock on re-election.
Here in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau enjoys the gift that keeps giving – 30 minutes of continuous coverage daily from the major news media. Even Doug Ford, Ontario’s once-embattled premier, has enjoy a remarkable resurgence in popularity because he has shown real leadership during the pandemic.
The fact that Trudeau is able to command continuous and largely uncritical coverage says a great deal about the state of news media. If the news media where in better financial shape, they could assign reporters to go out and do more original reporting rather than just letting the camera run seemingly endlessly in front of this one politician. They could do more fact-checking, or original reporting, rather than relying on the word of someone whose future rests in managing the public spin. They could spend more time with the opposition leaders, seeking out different points of view.
But, alas, the media is not in any position to do any of that, and so much of what Trudeau says is accepted at face value, unchallenged and unverified. This is partly why this health crisis is paying dividends for the prime minister and his hopes of winning a majority government in the next election.
Never let a crisis go to waste? Some politicians – and I’m thinking of Trump – have wasted the opportunity to create a more statesmanlike image. Others, like Alberta’s Jason Kenney, have had to wear the burden of choosing the worst possible time to go to war with the province’s doctors.
But Trudeau has learned that just standing in front of a mic and sounding sincere is about all he needs to do to emerge a political winner.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.
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