31 March 2014

Kremlinology 46: Verb Tense #nlpoli

Premier-in-waiting Frank Coleman, anointed replacement for Danny Williams, turned up with CBC’s David Cochrane to explain to the On Point audience what he is all about.

Cochrane asked him about Danny Williams and the widespread stories about Williams’ support for Coleman’s candidacy.

What happened next is fascinating.

“Was [Williams] the first guy to reach out to you to ask you to get into this race?” asked Cochrane.

“I would have called Danny Williams…,” said Coleman.

It’s a simple question and normally you’d expect a simple, direct answer.

Instead we got a vague response,  complete with an abstract, conditional, hypothetical verb. 

“Would have”.

Like normally I would have gone to the store, as if it was something you so many times you can’t really be sure about what happened that one specific time.

But this wasn’t about an everyday occurrence.  This was a specific event:  a telephone call from Williams to Coleman or vice versa. You expect that Coleman could easily remember something as momentous as a call that – in effect – made him Premier of the province.

And yet, Coleman’s answer is vague.

It wasn’t even what Coleman said before in answer to a slightly different question, as in “I called him” to get his advice. 





This time it was squishy.

Hypothetically, I would have called him.

Normally, I would have called him.

I would have called him, but he called me first.

Note that Coleman’s squishy response came immediately after he stated emphatically that he got into the race himself, not as the result of some collusion.  Logically, you’d expect him to carry the same firmness through into the next question.

“Was Danny the first guy to reach out to you to encourage you to get into the race?”

Coleman should have said something like:  I called him for some advice.  He’s got a lot of experience and I value his judgement.

That would be a reply consistent with what Coleman has said before.

If someone else had suggested Coleman run, then he could have truthfully said;  No, Danny wasn’t the first, but I called him for advice.

Coleman didn’t say that, either.

Something about the Danny question bothered him.

It’s easy to understand why.  This idea that Coleman is part of an inside fix for the leadership is a touchy subject in Conservative circles. As Cochrane noted during the interview, he’s even talked to Conservative activists who believe that the fix is in for Coleman. 

Whether Coleman knows anything about political wheeling and dealing is irrelevant.  Regardless of that, the implication for his campaign of an inside fix – even just the perception of a backroom deal - is tremendous.  No one would want the Premier’s job only to be regarded as someone else’s puppet.  The idea of a fix by party insiders including Williams also destroys the image of a changed party that the Conservatives are busily trying to create.

It doesn’t take much imagination, in other words, to understand why a question about a call between Danny Williams and Frank Coleman would bother Coleman.  Coleman and his team have faced this question from the day he confirmed he was running.  They know it will keep coming up.  They likely have given their response some thought.

That’s why it is important to notice the words Coleman used in his interview with Cochrane.

And it’s not like Coleman was searching for words in response to a question out of the blue, in this interview. Through the interview, Coleman is pretty clear when he speaks. In reply to this specific question, he used the same vague language  - I would have called him - not once but twice.

The second time he puts the hypothetical call into a much longer time frame – three to five years – “leading up to the announcement.”  Then Coleman launches into praise for Williams, as if to change the subject.

When Cochrane asks the pointed question about who called whom, Coleman smiles and says that he called Williams. 

But which call was Coleman talking about in the emphatic response?

Is it a call or a bunch of calls made over the course of five years to talk hypothetically about the possibility that Frank might run to replace Danny at an undefined future point?

Or was it a call made within the last five weeks?

We don’t know.

Coleman’s vague response to Cochrane’s simple question leaves a cloud around the relationship between the Old Man and Frank Coleman’s candidacy than it answered. 

Odds are good someone is going to keep asking Coleman about that relationship until Coleman gives a straight answer.