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Doug Saunder (The Globe and Mai)
Doug Saunder (The Globe and Mai)

DOUG SAUNDERS

Do we speak up or shut up when politicians start looking different? Add to ...

In the eyes of many observers, it seems that something has gone very wrong with the prominent politician: His formerly neat and precise comportment has become loose and erratic, his physical appearance has changed, and there are stories of botched speeches, bad meetings and awkward encounters.

Somebody asks him about it. He denies anything’s wrong, or offers a sensible and sympathetic medical explanation.

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That’s where the trouble begins. What do you say? Is it none of our business? Is the denial simply a way to spread the dark rumour even further?

On the other side of the Atlantic, this has become a national debate.

In September of 2009, the BBC journalist Andrew Marr sat down with Gordon Brown, who was then the British Prime Minister, and asked him a question that had never been asked before.

“A lot of people in this country use prescription painkillers and pills to help them get through,” Mr. Marr noted, and then asked: “Are you one of them?”

Mr. Marr explained that there had been rumours about this circulating in the Westminster village. After all, the Prime Minister had seemed aimless and fatigued lately, given to testy confrontations, and his fingernails were chewed to the raw. A pill problem would be a perfectly reasonable explanation.

Only it wasn’t. “No,” Gordon Brown said, adding: “I think this is the sort of questioning which is all too often entering the lexicon of British politics.”

He didn’t have a pill problem, it turned out. He was just a dour and temperamental Scottish guy who was trying to stickhandle the global economy away from total collapse while fending off serious leadership challenges from within his own party, none of which was going well, and he was showing the inevitable effects. He had problems, but they were not pharmacological – and it turned out that the pill-problem rumours had come from a blogger who admitted to having had zero evidence.

Andrew Marr was denounced, for weeks, by almost every political leader and media outlet across the political spectrum, and that moment is still regarded as a dark blot on an otherwise admirable journalistic career.

But to understand why he would even consider asking that question, you have to know what took place four years earlier, when a similar situation had led to quite a different result.

Charles Kennedy, the much-loved leader of the third-place Liberal Democrats, had been giving incoherent speeches, missing interviews and parliamentary sessions.

At the end of 2005, talk-show host Jonathan Dimbleby asked him, on live TV, “Has it been a battle to stay off the booze?” Mr. Kennedy bristled, denied it, and later said that his Irish surname and his ruddy complexion had led reporters to embrace certain widespread stereotypes. These had been dogging him for years. A few months earlier, The Times had been forced to publish a prominent apology after claiming that Mr. Kennedy had missed the House of Commons budget debate because he’d been drunk. It seemed grotesquely unfair: His denials only seemed to inflame the rumours.

But then, only a few weeks after the interview with Mr. Dimbleby, Charles Kennedy called a hasty press conference and announced that he would be seeking treatment for alcoholism, acknowledging that it had impaired his abilities. Under pressure from MPs who had spent years trying to cover for his addiction, he soon stepped down.

The very real substance-abuse problem that had ended Charles Kennedy’s political career after years of ill-sourced rumours and angry denials had led the British press and public to become far too willing to believe such rumours about other politicians. This ended up backfiring on Gordon Brown.

Jim Flaherty’s case is not quite the same: The finance minister has a skin disease, and it has affected his appearance, his sleeping patterns and attentiveness. But let’s be honest: The Ottawa press corps is not interested in him because it has developed a sudden fascination with dermatological matters. There were rumours, without any evidence, and the act of publicizing them – even through the circuitous route of allowing the minister to deny them – can be dangerous.

After all, he’s a guy with an Irish surname, a ruddy complexion and a garrulous style that makes him just about the only cabinet minister in the Harper government capable of delivering a human-sounding speech. So when his appearance or comportment take a turn for the worse, people will tend to fall back on other Irish stereotypes.

On the other hand, there is something odd and unnatural about a news media who pretend not to notice the physical manifestation of a politician, especially when it takes an unusual change. One of the serious flaws in traditional North American newspaper reporting is that we tend to write about officials as if they were pieces of machinery in the millworks of government, rather than humans with individual pathologies and traits.

A politician’s physical appearance and comportment are not incidental or irrelevant matters. The ability to move and persuade people, both in public and behind closed doors, is central to the job, and often more important than anything involving policy or administration. In a democracy, it is often a politician’s only job.

But because of that, we have to take care to avoid mischaracterizing those physical traits. As politicians soon learn, the only tools you really have to work with are your body and your face, planted in front of a camera and a microphone. When those tools grow rusty or dull, people are going to talk about it.

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