There’s renewed interest in Question Time, or rather in the idea of trying to import in some fashion the British parliamentary institution whereby the prime minister appears each Wednesday in the House of Commons in order to take questions and debate. The idea of an American version came up after the president’s meeting last week with House Republicans, which was notable in that it was televised, mildly informative, and did no harm.
If you’ve watched Question Time over the years on C-Span, you know it is high political theatre. “Will the prime minister admit the National Health System as presently constituted is bankrupting the nation, indifferent to the needy, and, as the failure it is, represents a vast, unmet promise the minister’s party cynically forgot the minute it took power?” Hear hear! Grrrr! Shut up you palsied sot! Followed by, “How very refreshing and even touching it is to see the member from Manchester’s newfound concern for, or even awareness of, the poor.” Hear! Answer the question! Shut up, you mincing prat!
The American version might not translate so well. The Brits have a certain tradition of elegance in debate, and enjoy insulting each other. American politicians are more conflicted about obvious aggression, not about feeling it but showing it—it might not play well!—and so they tend to go under or over the line. “You lie!” “Yeah? Well you’re blankin’ developmentally challenged!” We will miss Fritz Hollings, the former Democratic senator who once said to then-Sen. John Glenn, in a presidential primary debate, “But what have you done in the world?”
If an American version could take place regularly, outside Congress and on neutral territory, as the gangs say in “West Side Story,” there could be benefits. It would momentarily force members and the president to focus together on what’s actually happening this week, and, more important, it might force members of Congress to be more familiar with the bills they support. They might actually have to know what’s in them and show a grasp of details. This might tend to produce fewer omnibus bills. “You expect me to know and talk about what’s in that? It’s 2,000 pages! Cut it down to 20 and give it a new name.”
So an American Question Time might be nice. But it’s not what’s needed.
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I don’t know the precise word for what’s needed, but it has a context.
Both our political parties continue, even though they know they shouldn’t, even though they’re each composed of individuals many of whom actually know what time it is, even though they know we are in an extraordinary if extended moment, an ongoing calamity connected to our economic future, our nation’s standing in the world, our strength and our safety—even though they know all this, they continue to go through the daily motions, fund raising, vote counting, making ads with demon sheep, blasting out the latest gaffe of the other team. Our political professionals cheapen everything they touch because they are burying themselves in daily urgencies in order to dodge and avoid the big picture.
Here’s the big picture, or rather part of it. It was Tuesday afternoon in Washington, a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Chairman Dianne Feinstein threw the leaders of America’s intelligence agencies a question: “What is the likelihood of another terrorist-attempted attack on the U.S. homeland in the next three to six months, high or low?”
The director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, replied, “An attempted attack, the likelihood is certain I would say.”
“I would agree,” said CIA Director Leon Panetta.
FBI Director Robert Mueller also agreed.
We all saw the sound bite on the news. It flashed on the screen as you ran to catch your flight, or walked by the TV in your home. It’s hardly the first time government leaders have made such a prediction. They issue studies and papers saying things like this a lot. A deeply, darkly cynical person might wonder if they make such statements so they can say, when it happens, that they told us, it’s not their fault, they warned us. And if it doesn’t, they must have done something right.
No one seeing the Feinstein hearing thought, “That’s not true, what alarmists.” Everyone knows it’s true. People more likely thought, “I wonder where I’ll be when I hear the news. I wonder if I or mine will be the news, among those in the mall, at the show, in the building or the plane.”
America doesn’t need to be told that something bad will happen. America needs to be told what is being done, what will be done and what can be done, how together we’ll get through it, what information and attitude to take into the future. They don’t need to be made anxious, they need to be recruited into a common endeavor.
Instead both parties, understandably and yet wickedly, destructively, irresponsibly, use the nation’s safety as another issue on which to protect their political position.
At the Feinstein hearings, the head of the FBI said that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be underwear bomber in a federal prison outside Detroit, is offering new information to investigators. Politico soon had a story by Mike Allen and Kasie Hunt saying a “law-enforcement source” told them, “The information has been active, useful, and we have been following up. The intelligence is not stale.”
Assuming this is true, is it good that Abdulmutallab’s friends back in Yemen, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Dubai, London and Houston, all of which he reportedly visited in the years leading up to his terror attempt, be told this? Is it good they be informed he is likely giving them up? Does it help us to warn them?
The claim of Abdulmutallab’s post-Miranda talkativeness followed Republican accusations that the administration has been lax, lumbering and unfocused in its attitude toward terrorism. And this criticism is not illegitimate. The administration seems lately to acknowledge the reality of the war on terror in the abstract, but to be consistently surprised by it, or unwilling to acknowledge it, in the particular.
But the tendency of both parties to default to politics when they think about terrorism—“You’re weak,” “No, you’re bellicose,” “You’re avoiding reality to advance some dreamy geopolitical vision,” “You’re exploiting reality to make cheap points”—cannot be heartening to the public.
I think sometimes of the suburbs around Washington, which are planted thick with knowledgable veterans of government—old national-security and foreign-policy hands, patriots of both parties who’ve served within government, in and out of the military. How painful it must be for them to watch all this, knowing what they know and understanding that political party, at a time like this, means nothing. There is so much experience to share, and so much wisdom, from both parties. I wish those old hands had more say.
The biggest historic gain of this administration may turn out to be that Democrats in the White House experienced leadership in the age of terror, came to have responsibility in a struggle that needs and will need our focus. It wasn’t good that half the country thought jihadism was some little Republican obsession.
But both parties should sober up. The day after the next bad thing, we will all come together, because that is what we do. Republicans and Democrats will work together, for a while.
It would be better to do it now. It is their job to do it now.