If you are one of the political savants who thinks that dominating Twitter makes for a modern, inspired, and successful political leadership campaign, then say hello to Premier Steve Kent, right.
The guy and his Twitter army, some of them undoubtedly utter fakes, managed to spam the living hell out of twitter over the weekend. They far surpassed Con O’Brien, the solo anti-Muskrat Falls army who previously held the record for relentless tweeting.
Con is ahead of the other Con on substance though: O’Brien usually makes his own comments; the Kent Klub tend to send around anything anyone else said about their man-boy, as long as it is positive.
Regular readers of these scribbles won’t be surprised to hear that sort-of endorsement for Kent. SRBP has long acknowledged Kent’s superlative abilities as a self-promoter. He markets himself like few professional politicians in recent memory.
When Twitter became a popular local commodity Kent was there, flicking out messages relentlessly. Here he was attending this event or that event. There he was letting you know he was in the queue for Open Line, yet again.
Over here a picture of the prematurely pudgy, ordinary guy in an Ice Caps jersey (no accidental choice) belting out karaoke.Over there a picture of Kent holding the very latest addition to his Klub, taken over the doctor’s shoulder by his wife, the placenta still undescended, her feet still in the stirrups.
That last one was made up, but those of you familiar with Kent’s Twitter presence likely had to get that confirmation it was indeed not true, just to be sure. After all, if you follow Kent’s promotional machine, he appears to have that sort of manic presence. He is everywhere, all the time. Twitter was confirmation that he was there, doing the things you do, being like you, in the places you are. Steve Kent is just like you. He is with you. He is one of you.
Except of course, that he wasn’t.
During the Nalcor Blackout, for example, Kent was actually in Florida, safe and warm, not huddled up in Mount Pearl with the wife and kids, in the cold, cursing the friggers who turned out the lights. His explanation – offered in a prepared statement – confirmed he was in Florida at the time of his Twitter comments, but made no mention of his online activity. Instead, Kent told us what other people did in his absence although he wrote it in a way that implicitly included himself in the action. But while Kent uses the phrase “my team” to describe the people who set up the provincial emergency operations centre, and says that “we” began co-ordinating, the emergency response, Kent had nothing to do with any of that practical work.
In the next paragraph, Kent tells us that he “devoted all his waking hours” to working on the emergency. He was "attending” operational briefings, keeping in touch with the Premier and the natural resources minister and “monitoring” the situation at home “via email, the media and social media.” Daily emergency operations briefings are intended to keep the political bosses informed about what is going on. They may be lengthy - an hour - but they don’t consume huge amounts of times. The same is true of those intermittent telephone calls, emails and the like with Kathy Dunderdale or Derrick Dalley.
“Monitoring” doesn’t involve very much labour at all, either.
So Kent was working “every waking hour”? Not likely.
What he was actually up to - at least what most people saw - were the relentless tweets. They were seen by the people who follow his feed, reporters especially, and people reading the Twitter hashtags about the blackout that people were following for comment and information about events. Kent told one person on Twitter who criticised Dunderdale for her absence that Kent, in fact, was “a spokesperson” for the provincial government. In that capacity, he sent a tweet on January 4 “to sincerely thank all resident of NL for their patience during this difficult situation.” Another one encouraged people to “stay in touch with your neighbours. Make sure everyone is okay.” And yet another told people that the power was back on in Power’s Pond, an area of Mount Pearl.
In other places those sorts of tidbits come not from the politician but from the emergency response agency itself. After all, they are operational information. In the case of the tweet about Power’s Pond, others actually involved in restoring power typically made some sort of formal notification if the people in Power’s Pond didn’t tweet – as many did – the instant their lights went on or off during the crisis.
What’s important about that episode for our purposes here is not whether or not where Kent was at the time of the events or whether, in his own defence, he shamelessly bullshitted everyone in sight. What we should note firstly is that Kent did not see his physical presence as an issue worth mentioning. Second, his activity was superficial to events at the time but it served as a part of Kent’s promotional program. That was his role. Thirdly, we should note that in his defence, Kent obscured the real work involved in the emergency response and appropriated it to himself with talk of “my team” and how “we” set about to do things when the “we” didn’t include the people who did the actual work except in the most generous of notional interpretations. Notionally Kent was running things just as notionally, Kent was in Newfoundland at the time.
“Great men, even during their lifetime, are usually known to the public only through a fictitious personality.” When Walter Lippmann wrote those words in Public Opinion (1922) he was talking about great men in the sense of leading figures in the community like politicians or industrialists. The fictitious personality was the impression most of of gained from accounts in the popular media of the time, rather than from first-hand contact with the person daily.
These days, the fiction can be much more elaborate and part of a plan that is more or less conscious on the part of the people involved. They don’t want to deceive people in a bad way: it’s not necessarily that kind of fiction. What we are looking at with Kent - or most recently before now Danny Williams - is fiction that is aimed at making the subject known to people. It’s about making them popular.
Think of things like Kent’s tweets like the tourism ads run a couple of years ago. The agency involved took a couple of photos of a real spot and by manipulating the photo to add or delete things that look more attractive but that don’t exist in the real world. The word that we associate most closely with this situation is authentic. The marketers will talk about promoting an authentic experience, or an authentic locale, and in the process of providing it, they may – as with those tourism ads – resort to what amounts to fakery.
With politicians like Kent or his fellow leadership candidate Paul Davis, one of the hallmarks of their style is the absence of anything beyond prepared remarks and cliche. You’ll get a good view of that from On Point this past weekend. Incidentally, David Cochrane, returned from a prolonged absence, has produced three back-to-back crackers that hopefully are a sign this show is back on the track to becoming an integral part of political reporting in the province.
Notice in the interviews with Kent and Davis that Cochrane starts with a question about their support for Frank Coleman and why they didn’t run last time. Note that both use exactly the same cliche, that they were “at a different place” then compared to now.
For Davis, the different place was the tail end of what – apparently - has been a two-year-long battle with cancer. Davis says this something to the effect that everyone knew about this. Oddly, then, Davis took quite a few minutes in an interview with the St. John’s Morning Show on Thursday to actually say the word “cancer”.
For Kent, the different place was family. “We were dealing with a pregnancy,” as if his wife’s being pregnancy six months ago was demonstrably more difficult than entering the race a couple of days after she delivered their third child. He was also dealing with “a lot of important files” as a cabinet minister, as if that was any different from one day to the next.
Then he repeats the line that he was ready to enter the race last time. “Cheques were signed” he says, using that awkward bureaucratic way of speaking in which no one actually does anything. Cheques were signed, but he leaves unsaid who actually signed anything. Kent finishes with the statement that Coleman is out and so he is in.
But notice, if you haven’t already, that Kent never actually told you why he didn’t run last time but is running this time. In the same way, Kent never reconciles the fairly obvious contradiction between his statement that the party needed a competitive race to rejuvenate, whereas a few months ago it could rejuvenate – by Kent’s own assessment at the time – without any competition whatsoever.
In interviews with Cochrane, CBC’s Morning Show or NTV, Kent recited the same patter. There are always “challenges”, the neutral term so beloved of the politician. NTV made a great deal on Friday out of Kent’s supposed commitment to reforming the House of Assembly.
But in the clips NTV used from Issues and Answers, Kent actually said only that there were things about changing the House of Assembly he would like to think about, not actually do. The House of Assembly must be “modernised”, in Kent’s practiced phrase (he uses it twice), but at no point does Kent tell us what he means by the phrase.
His answers – always delivered with the same breathless speed and monotone - make it appear that Kent is open to new ideas or maybe actually has some of his own. But the words are devoid of any commitment, of any weight. These comments on the House of Assembly may make it into his platform – not the conditional word “may” – but in another interview, this time with Cochrane, Kent says that it makes no sense for some unexplained reason to lay out a full platform of ideas. Instead, Kent says he will just toss some things out there.
Kent is not alone in this chameleon use of language or the tendency to embrace two entirely contradictory ideas. Paul Davis has done the same thing in the past few days. It’s the hallmark of a the professional politician, or in Davis’ case, the quick study.
Nowhere was the artifice, the contrivance, the facade, the mask, more obvious than in their respective launches. Both talked of the public interest in change. Both claimed they represented change.
And then both insisted – as Conservatives have consistently maintained since 2003 – that everything is wonderful in the province. There are no problems. There are not even challenges, except to remind people of how good things are and how we must keep going just as things are.
Change means staying the same.
And the duty of a good Conservative leader is to talk about change while holding to the same course.
We haven’t heard that before, surely.