In 1984, New York governor Mario Cuomo gave the keynote address at the Democratic Convention.
Ronald Reagan was the U.S. president at the time, and the favourite to win re-election. The Democrats were intent on emphasizing the disparity that existed in America, to show that not everyone was sharing in its wealth and opportunity; that not everyone lived in the “shining city on a hill,” as Mr. Reagan had called it.
In his speech, entitled “A Tale of Two Cities,” Mr. Cuomo talked about those who couldn’t afford to pay their mortgages, and the young people who couldn’t qualify for one. He said students couldn’t afford the education they needed and elderly people were trembling in fear in their basements.
“There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see, in the places you don’t visit in your shining city,” Mr. Cuomo told the convention that night.
It was powerful. And it did a masterful job of portraying Mr. Reagan as out of touch, as someone with little grasp for the misery many in the country were facing.
I was reminded of Mr. Cuomo’s speech recently when federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre posted one of his own to social media. In it, he set out to frame Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in much the same way Mr. Cuomo did with Ronald Reagan 38 years earlier. In fact, in at least one instance, the echo was jarring.
“Let me tell you something, Justin,” said Mr. Poilievre. “There is pain in the faces you do not see, there is suffering in the voices you do not hear and there is distress and even chaos in the places you do not go.”
It’s difficult to imagine whoever wrote Mr. Poilievre’s speech didn’t take some inspiration – and even direct words – from Mr. Cuomo’s 1984 address. One could argue, in fact, that the entire theme of the federal Conservative Leader’s address to his caucus was strikingly similar to Mr. Cuomo’s.
There was another aspect of Mr. Poilievre’s speech that seems to be becoming a recurring feature: the anonymous victim of Mr. Trudeau’s policies. These are random people he has just happened upon who, funny enough, have had their lives upended, even ruined in some cases, by Liberal policies.
In an earlier video, it was a man named Mustafa, who Mr. Poilievre allegedly ran into at the Ottawa airport. Mustafa lived in Calgary, we were told, and was in Ottawa to get a passport after fruitlessly waiting for one for 10 months. The delay had forced him to miss his own wedding in Cuba, where his would-be-bride and the wedding party were all waiting for him.
And this was all Mr. Trudeau’s fault. Many have cast doubt on Mustafa’s existence.
In his latest speech, Mr. Poilievre encounters a 60-something-year-old man at his local grocery store. He was a cook who approached him “with tears in his eyes to tell me he has to delay his retirement, but you know the thing that really broke him? That he can no longer afford the very ingredients to cook at home that he works with in his job.”
All because of federal Liberal policies.
I don’t know about you, but I’d love to talk to this cook. And Mustafa too.
I think it should be a rule that any person that a politician cites in a speech for political ends should be verifiable. If you’re attempting to embarrass and discredit the Prime Minister of this country, then you should have to back it up. You should have the ability to prove that the person you are using as a political prop actually exists.
I should say that it is not only Mr. Poilievre who does this. Other politicians, of all political persuasions, have used “a person they’ve run into” harbouring deep resentment toward those currently in power as political weapons. And he’s not the first politician to borrow content from elsewhere in composing a speech.
But it can have consequences. In 1987, amid his first bid for the U.S. presidency, Joe Biden was accused of plagiarizing from a speech given by British politician Neil Kinnock. The controversy effectively derailed his campaign.
It’s hard to imagine Mr. Biden today using someone like Mustafa in a speech without being able to point the media in the man’s direction.
And if it turned out to be a fake anecdote, that would be a story. A huge one, in fact.
Mr. Poilievre is an extremely effective communicator. Through his oratory, he has been able to put the Liberals on the defensive over a vast array of issues. And he has been able to link Mr. Trudeau to much of that distress.
If the federal Conservative Leader does one day become prime minister, his words will carry even greater weight than they do now. And they will be scrutinized more than they currently are as well.