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24 May 2017
Evening Sedition

Too Small, Too Cramped, and Just Right

Churhill Inspecting Damage to Parliament After its Destruction in 1941

Churhill Inspecting Damage to Parliament After its Destruction in May of 1941

I used this Churchill quote in my entry about Soviet Architecture:

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.

— Sir Winston Churchill, speech 28 October 1943 to the House of Commons (meeting in the House of Lords) regarding the rebuilding of Parliament after its destruction by the Germans

Architects love this quote. But taking it out of context eliminates much of it's true power. Here is the full quote:

On the night of May 10, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again,and how, and when. We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, should like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.

— Sir Winston Churchill, speech 28 October 1943 to the House of Commons (meeting in the House of Lords for obvious reasons)

But, first, an aside. It should be pointed out that the scale of the German's 10 May 1941 raid on London was enormous: 550 bombers dropped more than 700 tons of bombs and thousands of incendiaries. The fires did more damage than the bombs, as was the case throughout the Battle of Britain. This raid seriously injured 1,800 and killed almost 1,500. Many buildings, including the House of Commons, were destroyed. This was the last major attack on Britain until the Germans started using the V1 and V2 rockets. Ok, enough history of World War II. Back to Churchill.

By urging that the House of Commons be rebuilt as it was, Churchill wanted it to be too small to hold all the members, with no private desks "giving each member a desk to sit at and a lid to bang." But why would he propose replacing a building that was too small with another inadequate in size? Years later, in his memoirs, he explained his reasoning:

Finally, on October 28 (1943) there was the rebuilding of the House of Commons to consider. One unlucky bomb had blown to fragments the chamber in which I had passed so much of my life. I was determined to have it rebuilt at the earliest moment that our struggle would allow. I had the power at this moment to shape things in a way that would last. Supported by my colleagues, mostly old Parliamentarians, and with Mr. Attlee's cordial aid, I sought to re-establish for what may well be a long period the two great principles on which the British House of Commons stands in its physical aspect. The first is that it must be oblong, and not semicircular, and the second that it must only be big enough to give seats to about two-thirds of its Members. As this argument has long surprised foreigners, I record it here.

There are two main characteristics of the House of Commons which will command the approval and the support of reflective and experienced Members. The first is that its shape should be oblong and not semicircular. Here is a very potent factor in our political life. The semicircular assembly, which appeals to political theorists, enables every individual or every group to move round the centre, adopting various shades of pink according as the weather changes. I am a convinced supporter of the party system in preference to the group system. I have seen many earnest and ardent Parliaments destroyed by the group system. The party system is much favoured by the oblong form of chamber. It is easy for an individual to move through those insensible gradations from left to right, but the act of crossing the Floor is one which requires serious attention. I am well informed on this matter for I have accomplished that difficult process, not only once, but twice. Logic is a poor guide compared with custom. Logic, which has created in so many countries semicircular assemblies with buildings that give to every member not only a seat to sit in, but often a desk to write at, with a lid to bang, has proved fatal to Parliamentary government as we know it here in its home and in the land of its birth.

The second characteristic of a chamber formed on the lines of the House of Commons is that it should not be big enough to contain all its members at once without overcrowding, and that there should be no question of every member having a separate seat reserved for him. The reason for this has long been a puzzle to uninstructed outsiders, and has frequently excited the curiosity and even the criticism of new Members. Yet it is not so difficult to understand if you look at it from the practical point of view. If the House is big enough to contain all its members nine-tenths of its debates will be conducted in the depressing atmosphere of an almost empty or half-empty chamber. The essence of good House of Commons speaking is the conversational style, the facility for quick, informal interruptions and interchange. Harangues from a rostrum would be a bad substitute for the conversational style in which so much of our business is done. But the conversational style requires a small space, and there should be on great occasions a sense of crowd and urgency. There should be a sense of the importance of much that is said, and a sense that great matters are being decided, there and then, by the House.

This anyhow was settled as I wished.

Winston S. Churchill, Closing the Ring, Volume 5 of The Second World War, Chapter 9.

The argument against debates "conducted in the depressing atmosphere of an almost empty or half-empty chamber" replayed decades later, but in a totally different circumstance and across the pond. The United States Congress rules allows members, during a few hour-long period each day, to give speeches on whatever they wish. These speeches are called "special orders":

Please explain "special order speeches." What is their purpose and why do Members bother giving them to an empty House? Helena, MT - 5/10/00

"Special order speeches allow Members of the House of Representatives to speak on any topic they wish for periods of time reserved in advance, anywhere from 5 up to 60 minutes in length. They occur routinely at the end of a day's legislative work. It is true that most Members have left the House floor by the time special orders begin. However, the chief target for these speeches is the C-SPAN audience, most notably constituents, and not other Members."

The origin of the term "special order speech" dates back to the 1930's when it was first used to mean a floor speech given outside of the regular order by the unanimous consent of all those present. Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX) began recognizing Members for special order speeches as a regular practice in the 1940's.

Special order speeches are not a procedural right, but a privilege granted by daily unanimous consent. Since House rules do not permit speaking on subjects other than pending legislative business, "non-legislative debate" can occur only when no one objects. Whenever the House steps outside of its "regular" order of procedure, it needs a "special" order to proceed, hence the shorthand reference to "special orders" when describing these speeches.

C-SPAN's Capitol Questions

The problem is that the members act as if the televised special-order speeches are genuine ones, gesturing to the cameras, turning from side to side as if addressing colleagues on a particular point, when the reality is that the chamber is empty. The whole thing is just bad political theatre designed to hoodwink constituents, but the viewers might not realize it.

But first, some history. When the democrats controlled congress — yes, this was actually the case for decades — they shut down the republican minority cold and did what they wanted. (Payback, as the saying goes, is highly upleasant.) Newt Gingrich got the bright idea of using C-SPAN coverage of special orders as a way to make inflammatory and antidemocratic (against the democrats but also against democracy as well) speeches as if he were doing this, uncontested, in front the full House. He got away with his antics for a while, until he made the mistake, in 1984, of going after House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. Now, that was playing with fire. Unfortunately, it was O'Neill who ended up with third-degree burns in the ensuing firestorm, not Gingrich.

Here's the official take:

"In May 1984, Speaker O'Neill asserted his control over the House cameras, provoking cries of protest from House Republicans and leading to a disruption on the House floor. In the process, the way that television covers the House underwent permanent change.

On May 10, 1984, the speaker ordered House cameras to break with precedent and provide a full view of the empty House chamber during Special Orders speeches. With Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pennsylvania) on the floor, the camera for the first time showed a representative gesturing and talking to a chamber of empty seats.

Minority whip Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), watching in his office, dropped what he was doing and raced to the floor to denounce the surprise camera angle as "an underhanded, sneaky, politically motivated change." The press picked up on the story immediately and gave it the name of "Camscam"; Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales called it a "knockabout slugfest" and wrote that "the brouhaha over control of the cameras has ignited the House and in the process served to dramatize again the huge presence television has in the political process."

"Camscam" came to a head on May 15, when harsh words flew on the House floor between Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) and Speaker O'Neill. Mr. O'Neill called a Gingrich speech `'the lowest thing I have ever seen in my 32 years in Congress"--a remark that the House parliamentarian ruled out of order. The speaker's words were taken down and the phrase was struck from the official congressional record, the first such rebuke to a House speaker in this century.

In time, "Camscam" died down, but today the cameras continue to show the whole chamber during Special Orders, giving audiences a fuller view of the post-legislative business proceedings. Later, in response to an initiative by the Republican leadership, cameras also started showing varied shots of the House members during votes. Slowly, the early restrictions on what the viewing audience could see through television were easing. "

Thanking C-SPAN for its Service on the 25th Anniversary of its First Coverage of Processings of House, House Resolution 551, Committee on House Administration 18 March 2004

And the unofficial view from the left:

Last May, U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich stood in the well of the House to rebut charges made by Speaker Tip O'Neill. For months, Gingrich had been harassing the Democrats in evening speeches broadcast over C-Span, the cable channel that carries House sessions. He called them "blind to communism"; he threatened to "file charges" against ten Democrats for a letter they wrote to Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega; he accused one Democrat of placing "communist propaganda" in the Speaker's lobby. In retaliation, O'Neill ordered the C-Span cameras to sweep the floor every few minutes to show the world that Gingrich and friends were declaiming before empty seats. And on May 14, he attacked Gingrich for questioning the patriotism of members of Congress.

Now the showdown was at hand. The chamber was full, the hubbub audible. Cocksure and articulate, Gingrich repeated his attack on Democratic foreign policy. O'Neill's words, he said, came "all too close to resembling a McCarthyism of the Left." He had accused no one of being un-American, he insisted: "It is perfectly American to be wrong." When Democrats rose to challenge him, he deflected their criticisms, ignored the tough questions, pounced on the easy ones, and demonstrated all the techniques of a master debater.

Finally O'Neill took the floor, repeatedly interrupting Gingrich. Back and forth they went, the brash young Republican from Georgia and the indignant white-maned Democrat from Massachusetts. "My personal opinion is this," O'Neill roared at last, shaking his finger at Gingrich. "You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House, and challenged these people, and challenged their patriotism, and it is the lowest thing that I've ever seen in my 32 years in Congress."

Immediately, Minority Whip Trent Lott rose and asked that the Speaker's words be ruled out of order and stricken from the record. in the House, normally a bastion of civility, members are forbidden from making personal attacks on one another. After five minutes of nervous consultation, the chair ruled in Lott's favor. That night, the confrontation between Gingrich and O'Neill made all three network news programs. The third-term Republican from Georgia had arrived.

Newt Gingrich: Shining Knight of the Post-Reagan Right by David Osborne, 1 November 1984

It was the first time a Speaker had been rebuked that way since the 1790s, and gleeful Republicans had television ads on the air within days. With that smirk that still drives the Democrats crazy, Gingrich announced: "I am now a famous person."

Master of the House, by Nancy Gibbs and Karen Tumulty, Time Magazine, 1995
or Master of the House, by Nancy Gibbs and Karen Tumulty, Time Magazine, 1995

And that, boys and girls, is why C-SPAN, for a brief time, panned around the empty room showing that these are not serious speeches given in the course of legislative debate. But only for a while, mind. After both sides realized that it was worse to have the phoniness and emptiness of the whole process televised, it decided to change the camera rules to require a fix on the speaker or the rostrum. Anyway, back to Churchill.

Biker Tony's Photograph of Parliament at night

Biker Tony's photograph of Parliament at Night

So, Churchill got his goal of having a building be filled beyond capacity, overflowing into the aisles with members, a vast sea of humanity all gathered for the purpose to argue and vote. Passion compressed to a small space, breathing life into democracy, like voting to support Bush in an illegal war. To bad Churchill never realized that their whole structure — lords, commoners, and a monarch — was the antithesis of democracy. The American system is far superior; we have three branches of government — lords, more lords, and even more lords — and a fuhrer to lead them to victory and us into slavery. Much better!

Oh, yeah. And the outcome of that famous shot of the empty chamber to which House members had been so pompously and fatuously opining? Well, even C-SPAN's founder has no idea what the effect was:

Ms. HILLGREN: What is the greatest impact C-SPAN has had on the political culture of the United States? Did Republicans exploit it to spread their philosophy by droning on to an empty chamber?

Mr. LAMB: I have absolutely no idea what our impact has been. But I hope Republicans have exploited it and I hope Democrats have exploited it and I hope Perotistas have exploited it. What is it about us that we all think we should not argue? I think we should argue all the time. I think that's part of getting to a decision. Exploit the living daylights out of us. It's up to us, like the call-in lines, to not be overly exploited by anybody. And that's the beauty of the system. We have 17,000 hours a year to fill. And we're not in a hurry. We don't have ratings. We don't have to fuss over all this stuff. It's an oasis. That's what makes it so much fun. So exploit us, have at us, all of you.

Brian Lamb, C-SPAN Chairman and CEO, in Interview at the National Press Club, 6 January 1997

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