Wednesday, May 21, 2008

President's Questions

Many of the traditions of government here in the United States are derived from those of Great Britain (except, of course, for that whole King/Queen thing we disputed back around 1776). Our traditions of justice and representative government all derive from those of the "Mother Country," unless you live in Louisiana, where through a quirk of history the laws are based on the Napoleonic Code.

One of the traditions we didn't carry over from our British brethren is Prime Minister's Questions, under which the Prime Minister appears before the House of Commons for a half-hour each Wednesday while Parliament is in session to answer questions from the assembled Members of Parliament. It's live, unscripted, and endlessly interesting. You can read transcripts, hear the audio, and see video archives here, and listen to the sessions each Wednesday morning on C-SPAN. I wish we had something like it here.

Unfortunately, I doubt it would ever work in this country. In an article in MSN Slate Magazine, Christopher Hitchens writes of Prime Minister's Questions that, "...There's no script. The handlers can't come in there with you. There's no warning of the real question, because the topic can easily be concealed inside an ostensible or pretext question. There's no defense against a crisply worded follow-up. Nobody can become prime minister, or continue as prime minister, who cannot stand up to it."

And I don't think many American politicians could. American politicians are famous for staying "on message" and assiduously avoiding the threat of having to answer unexpected questions for which they haven't had the time to prepare glib answers. I can't imagine George Bush willingly appearing once a week in front of the House of Representatives to take random questions. Bill Clinton, perhaps. Maybe even Ronald Reagan. But the average US president would probably rather have a root canal without anesthetic than risk appearing once a week in front of an aggressive, unscreened, and potentially hostile Congressional audience.

It's too bad. You can look at Prime Minister's Questions as simple political theater, but I think it serves a valuable purpose by showing that the head of government must defend his policies and actions on a regular basis in front of the people's elected representatives. Instead of the president hunkering down in the fortified bunker of the White House, or pontificating to carefully-screened and selected adoring audiences, he (or she) ought to be willing to stand up and answer tough questions.

Well, I believe in Santa Claus, too. But it's a nice thought.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



NathanRyder said...

Prime Minister's question time is brilliant; you should have a search for Gordon Brown's new initiative, where he invites people to submit questions that he will answer in videos on Youtube...

Mrs. Geezerette said...

Didn't McCain say recently that he would like to try something like this with Congress if he is elected? I like the idea.

Amanda said...

Yes, I knew about this question time and really enjoyed listening to it in the past when we had snippets of it on Australian radio. It takes a brave person to do it week after week.

Mike said...

Knowing how rowdy things get in parlament to begin with, the only thing missing from one of these sessions would be the beer.

ssgreylord said...

Are you saying there isn't a Santa Claus?!