What the Hell’s a Prime Ministership For?
Lyndon Johnson had the momentous task of addressing a joint session of Congress in his first major address as president. He listened for hours while advisers debated the themes of the speech.
LBJ biographer Robert Caro recounts: “And then, in the early hours of the morning [an adviser] told him to his face that a president shouldn’t spend his time and power on lost causes, no matter how worthy …” LBJ responded, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?”
Walking towards Parliament Square last May for the opening of Parliament, Perry Christie blew a slow kiss to his supporters. It is unlikely that Hubert Ingraham would have done likewise. More likely, he would have marshalled a quick wave or his signature salute, like a general in command.
The different gestures provide some insight into the competing strengths and limitations of the two men, and that of their parties. In the minds of many, the perceived divide, best imagined as a continuum, is that the PLP is the party of compassion, and the FNM the party of competence.
Given Ingraham’s and the FNM’s extraordinary record in human and social development, the accuracy of this perception bears examination but is not addressed here.
Ingraham’s political calculus seems to have been that in achieving a record of accomplishments that voters would respond by supporting him and his party. The FNM’s 2012 slogan, “We Deliver”, sought to capture this notion.
Rather than compassion, the word “feeling” better pinpoints one of the PLP’s greatest and long-held strengths in attracting voters and in its ability to rebound. In 2012 it blasted the FNM as uncaring, as the party of things, instead of people.
The PLP’s promise-making last May, often seemed to channel the Book of Revelation: The PLP “… will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Hubert Ingraham’s eyes are often fixed on his watch. He is famously punctual. Perry Christie’s gaze is usually fixed on his immediate audience. He is just as famously tardy. Ingraham, a whirlwind of energy, has a schedule to keep. A more relaxed-paced Christie has an audience to charm.
Ingraham often seems as if he’s chasing after time, with never enough of it to get done his bucket list of objectives. Christie seems to imagine that lost time is a form of renewable energy.
Christie and Ingraham share a number of political traits. Both are charismatic. Despite his bluntness, Ingraham, like Christie, can pour on the charm. Still, Christie’s easy charm makes him no less ruthless than Ingraham, especially when his power is threatened.
Politicians, like most of us, tend to self-mythologize. Still, the iconic stories Christie and Ingraham have told of their formative years, provide some insight into their personal and political characters.
There is Ingraham’s story of learning from his grandmother to always fight back and fend for himself after being beaten up at school. Christie tells the story of the second chance after being expelled from Government High School (GHS).
A dear friend tells the story of two employees. One, a child of privilege, was eventually fired because he was often late, taking for granted that as a child of privilege he would likely be afforded second, third, fourth chances and more.
The other, still employed, was so taken by the opportunity to work, that he often goes the extra mile. Of course, not all children of privilege are inclined to take opportunities for granted, and many children lacking privilege blow opportunities.
Character is destiny, the Greek sage Heraclitus declared millennia ago. As a boy, Ingraham learned hard the lesson of fighting back, at times overly so, aggressively pouncing, when a lighter touch would have served him better. Still, given an opportunity, he was determined to succeed.
Curiously, had Ingraham been given a chance to attend GHS as a day student, how likely is it that he would have flubbed such a singular privilege?
Christie learned the importance of affording others second chances. Yet, one of the defining and chronic flaws of his political career is that, given second, third and more chances, he tends to squander them, often spectacularly so.
Perry Christie, a star athlete with easy charm, was a golden boy. Hailing from the Valley, with all of its communal and social relationships, he was also a child of some privilege.
The minimum age of appointment to the Senate is 30. In 1974, a 31-year-old Christie, who had successfully studied law in the UK, was appointed to the Senate on the advice of Sir Lynden Pindling, becoming one of the youngest individuals appointed to that body.
Hubert Ingraham also caught the eye of Sir Lynden and, like Christie, was eventually appointed to and later fired from Pindling’s Cabinet. In his farewell address in the House, Sir Lynden offered a telling insight, referring to Ingraham as his most illustrious protege thus far.
Afforded the rare privilege of serving as prime minister after Sir Lynden, the respective moments eventually arrived for Christie and Ingraham to reveal their characters and convictions, and how well they had learned the lessons of their youth and of their rise to power.
Power reveals. The top prize in politics revealed each man’s answer to: What the hell’s the prime ministership for?
A biography of the Ingraham years might be titled, “The Time is Now!” with an hourglass on the cover, all capturing Ingraham’s steely conviction of the urgency of now. Christie’s title might be that of another author, “Chronicles of Wasted Time”, visualized with a cover of a receding tide.
In the hands of a capable leader, the prime ministership is about the power to accomplish great ambitions, marrying one’s personal ambitions with great purpose. Both Christie and Ingraham fought hard to achieve and maintain power. Yet, with the top office achieved they proved very different leaders.
With power abhorring a vacuum, Ingraham fills that vacuum. He is a man of action. The power vacuum in a Christie administration deteriorates into a gulf of chaos. He is a man of chronic and paralyzing ambivalence.
The starkly contrasting record of what Ingraham and Christie accomplished in their constituencies is emblematic of their accomplishments as prime minister.
Both enjoyed the fortune of representing in the House the communities of their youth. Both had the power to modernize and transform their constituencies. Ingraham seized the opportunity, transforming all of Abaco.
Christie’s dire record has been one of shameful neglect and of chronic ambivalence, with his failing even to spend in a timely manner funds allocated to him to improve his constituency.
What Ingraham did in Abaco, he did throughout the country, using his time in office to transform, reform and modernize. What Christie failed to do in his respective constituencies, he has failed to do writ large as prime minister.
In 2002 Perry Gladstone Christie achieved his long-coveted prize and a whopping electoral mandate for what was styled as a new PLP. It was a second chance for the party following the scandal stains and abuse of power of the Pindling years.
Yet, despite a huge mandate, Christie accomplished precious little, failed to reform his party, presided over another scandal-ridden PLP, and became the first prime minister expelled after a single turn.
Re-elected to another term from 2007 to 2012, and in the face of the Great Recession, Ingraham may have come close to achieving more in one term than he did in two previous terms.
Now, given yet another chance, Christie has demonstrated conclusively that he has still not fully learned nor seems capable of acting on the lesson of the second chance. His first year of his second term is a disaster.
The severe disappointment of Christie – a man of promise and privilege – especially for those who sincerely wished him well and who had great hope in him, is his spectacular waste of time and opportunity.
In retrospect, though he may have seemed prime ministerial, Christie is better suited to public relations and winning elections, but not the hard tasks required of a successful prime minister.
Some seek power as an end in itself. Others seek power to accomplish big things. In answering the question “What the hell’s the prime ministership for?” Hubert Ingraham utilized power to transform the country.
It is hardly discernible what Perry Christie’s answer is to this question beyond his mere acquisition of power and the trappings of the prime ministership.
Author of The Front Porch Column in The Nassau Guardian
and contributor to www.bahamapundit.com