Good morning and welcome to The Final Friday Before Election ‘08. Soon, very soon, the polls will close and most of us will be hard-pressed to answer this question: What the hell was that all about?
Sprinting into the final weekend, the race is close. At least, closer than the pundits were predicting around, say, Day 20. And what happens in the final stretch of a closer-than-expected election campaign?
Attacks! Smears! Fear-mongering! Mutual destruction!
The Conservatives went on the offensive last night, seizing upon footage of a TV interview Stéphane Dion did in Halifax a few hours earlier. The clip, which you can see below, shows the Liberal leader struggling to understand a question about the economy.
He struggled not once, not twice, but three times:
Interviewer: "If you were prime minister now, what would you have done about the economy and this crisis that Mr. Harper has not done?"
Dion: "If I had been prime minister two and a half years ago?"
Interviewer: "If you were the prime minister right now—"
Dion: "Right now?"
Interviewer: "And had been for the past two years."
Dion: "If I'm elected next Tuesday, this Tuesday, is what you're suggesting?"
Interviewer: "No, I'm saying if you hypothetically were prime minister today—"
Interviewer: "—What would you have done that Mr. Harper has not done?"
Dion: "I would start the 30-50 plan that we want to start the moment that we'll have a Liberal government. And the 30-50 plan, ah, the 30, in fact the plan for the first 30 days, I should say, the plan for the first 30 days once you have a Liberal government, ah, can we start again?"
[As cameras are still rolling, the interviewer agrees to repose the question.]
Interviewer: "If you were prime minister now, what would you have already done in this crisis that Mr Harper hasn't done."
Dion: "Again, I don't understand the question. Because are you asking me at which moment, today, or since a week or 60 weeks?"
Interviewer: "If you were the prime minister during this time already."
Dion: "We need to start again. I'm sorry. If I was the prime minister starting when? Today?"
[Off-camera, an aide can be heard attempting to explain the question.]
Interviewer: "If you were prime minister of Canada today, what would you have done by now that Stephen Harper has not done?"
Dion: "Assume that I have been elected today prime minister, my first thing that I would do is..."
What are we to make of Bloopergate? Did the Tories just hook a big catch days before the election? Or did
they climb aboard a Swiftboat and return with a cooler full of red
This much is clear: We, the humble electorate, are normally force-fed a steady diet of sound bites. Politicians are coached and trained to recite key messages like well-oiled automatons in some dystopian nightmare that would give Descartes a panic attack.
In this context, the video is fascinating because it unscrews the bolts to an underbelly hatch, allowing us to peer inside the machinery. It reveals the mechanics of a politician unplugged.
But the video is hardly a revelation.
Anyone who has watched Dion over the past few weeks is keenly aware of his difficulties with the English language. On Wednesday, when he visited MuchMusic, a kid in the crowd asked this:
"How have you engaged and made youth a priority in this election?"
To which Dion replied: "How I have chosen my priorities in this election?"
His brain, at least when functioning in English mode, appears to be like a cellphone in an area with spotty service. Words are dropped. Semantics are distorted by static. All of this, of course, is related to his hearing problem.
Still, it must be disconcerting for Dion supporters to watch this video.
University professors are usually capable of extrapolating from a hypothetical construct. But it's clear, even in the third take of the interview, that Dion did not understand the subjunctive phrasing.
In fairness, the question contains two clauses, a theoretical conjunction in the present tense and a pragmatic query in the past. It's clumsy. And if English isn't your first language, it's understandably confusing.
So the Tories have pounced. The clip was played for the dreaded media last night and Stephen Harper even made a rare after-hours statement, arguing this Who’s On First? ephemera proves that Dion has no economic plan.
Dion was on CBC Newsworld this morning with the indomitable Heather Hiscox. She asked about Bloopergate and he said these things happen all the time, meaning taped TV interviews are edited. We just don't usually see the outtakes, which is true.
He also said CTV broke the conditions of the interview by airing the unedited footage. If that's true, it's a serious charge and one that warrants an explanation.
Me? I'm just hoping we can get through this final weekend with minimal mudslinging from all involved. These days, politicians love to talk about hope and change and discourse that's free of personal venom. They love to talk about taking a high road. But as we've seen this campaign, the basic instinct of politicians of all stripes leads straight to the gutter.
UPDATE (4:33 p.m.): So I just got off the phone with Robert Hurst, CTV’s president of news and current affairs. Did CTV violate an agreement by airing those false starts in the Dion interview? This is what Dion alleged this morning during his interview with CBC's Hiscox. But according to Hurst, "There was no agreement."
"We thought this was newsworthy," Hurst tells me.
There was an “intensive discussion” about how to proceed after ATV anchor Steve Murphy notified executives something weird happened at the top of what was about a six minute interview at the Delta Barrington Hotel in Halifax. The decision was then made to let viewers see the unedited footage and decide for themselves.