Where’s the ‘second most powerful man’?

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Where’s the ‘second most powerful man’?

Lee Sang-eon

The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

It has long been a British tradition for prime minister to face members of the parliament to take questions every week. The Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQ’s) in the Commons Chamber — a permanent in its weekly schedule — can be immensely stressful for the leader who is grilled by the legislature.

In his memoir “A Journey: My Political Life,” Tony Blair, one of the longest-serving prime ministers from the Labor Party, recalled, “I became convinced that PMQ’s twice a week was an enormous amount of time for a debating tournament. Once I changed it to once a week for a half an hour, and then moved it to midday not 3 p.m., it freed up an entire day and a half of time.” He confessed he had not been honest when he promised to raise efficiency in PMQ’s in his campaign platform.

Blair had been an immensely popular orator, skilled in communicating through the platform or television. Yet he changed the ritual to once a week. Since then, none of his successors attempted to go back to the old tradition for the last 25 years.
President Yoon Suk-yeol answers questions from a group of reporters on his way to the presidential office in Yongsan, Tuesday. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

“PMQ’s was the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question. You know that scene in Marathon Man where the evil Nazi doctor played by Laurence Olivier drills through Dustin Hoffman’s teeth? At around 11:45 on Wednesday mornings, I would have swapped 30 minutes of PMQs for 30 minutes of that.”

Former U.S. president Barack Obama, who was as suave in communication as Blair, also had a fear for public speech. In his memoir “A Promised Land,” he confessed how he dreaded gaffes, which gave the media a field day to make one look dumb, careless, ambiguous, evil, vulgar, deceitful or lacking common sense.

When Blair cut the PMQ’s to once a week in early 1997, he was enjoying 70 percent support from the British people. Due to the sweeping victory of the Labor Party in a parliamentary election, the parliament was dominated by the ruling party. Yet he still dreaded standing before the opposition. He, too, could have been fearful of making blunders and slips of the tongue.

Blair had been rigorous in preparing for his weekly questioning, writing every word in longhand “on hundreds of notepads.” He had his aides compile information on key issues, check facts on controversial themes, and go over a dummy set of Q&As. He had a round of drills with advisor Alastair Campbell, a former journalist and author. Blair was thoroughly readied for questioning, and in most cases, he triumphed during the PMOs.

Campbell’s official title was the senior public communications officer for the prime minster. But his role went beyond the realms of regular publicity and communication. When the New York Times reported his resignation from the post in 2003, Campbell was introduced as the “second most powerful man” in the British Cabinet.

He advised Blair on what words to include or omit in speeches, when to keep quiet and when to speak up, where to emphasize in explaining policies, and how to fight the opposition’s logic. Obama also had a similar strategist, David Axelrod.

In his memoir, Blair looked back on how he needed “Alastair’s advises” during certain moments. Although he hated to be interrupted before making speeches, Blair would take any advice from his spokesman. Through his coaching in speech and behavior, Blair became the longest-serving Labor prime minister, reigning for 10 years through three election victories.

President Yoon Suk-yeol made a habit of taking questions on his way to his office in Yongsan. Journalists may ask different questions each day, but they boil down to one: Where are you taking the nation? On such questions, he should be speaking of his visions for the short-and long-term. But too often, his answers are casual and lacking depth.

It is not surprising that his approval rating does not stop sliding.
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