- How did one maverick MP manage to outgun a committee
of senior US politicians so successfully? And did he make any lasting impact?
- It may not have been the "mother of all smokescreens"
- as George Galloway memorably described the congressional investigation
into the Iraq oil-for-food scandal - but his appearance certainly underlined
the mother of all culture gaps between the parliamentary traditions of
Britain and America.
- We tend to see politics as a public bloodsport. In the
US politics is as brutal as anywhere. But the violence usually takes place
off-stage, in the lobbying process, in the money game, in the ruthless
manipulation of scandal. True, every four years there are presidential
election candidates' "debates". But - with the exception of Bill
Clinton - every recent American president would have been slaughtered weekly
if he had to face Prime Minister's Questions. On the public stage, US politicians
are not accustomed to serious challenge.
- Take Norm Coleman. He is a smooth, upwardly mobile Republican
senator who is making a name for himself at the helm of the Permanent Sub-Committee
for Investigations, not least because of his call for Kofi Annan to step
down as United Nations secretary general over the scandal. As Mr Coleman
knows, no American politician ever lost a vote by bashing the UN.
- A telegenic former big city mayor, he looks younger than
his 55 years. Every senator, it is said, looks in the mirror and sees a
future president. And who knows, maybe a White House run is in Mr Coleman's
future. But on Tuesday, to UK and US observers alike, he looked way out
of his depth, manifestly unprepared for what was coming when Mr Galloway
began to testify.
- Perhaps he believed that a smooth ride would be ensured
by the traditional deference accorded the Senate (which is fond of referring
to itself, with barely a trace of irony, as "the world's greatest
deliberative body"). In fact, proceedings only served to underline
the average senator or congressman's ignorance of the world beyond America,
be it the underlying realities of the Middle East, or the polemical ways
of British public life.
- "If in fact he lied to this committee, there will
have to be consequences," said Mr Coleman after the encounter, in
the manner of a petulant schoolboy outgunned in an argument, but who gamely
insists on having the last word, however feeble, in an attempt to retrieve
- And like the hapless junior senator from Minnesota, the
US media too did not know quite what had hit it. For all its imperfections,
Congress - in particular the Senate part of it - commands a rigid respect.
Coverage of it tends to be strait-laced and humourless. Into this primly
arranged china shop crashed George Galloway, to deliver a public broadside
against US policy in Iraq, and the US system, unmatched since Michael Moore's
- In Britain, the prospect of such a confrontation would
have sketch-writers and columnists salivating days in advance. But that
is not the American way. Honourable exception should be made for the New
York Post, Murdoch-owned and the nearest thing in the US to a Fleet Street
tabloid. "Brit Fries Senators in Oil" was the headline on a news
story that noted the "stunning audacity" of Mr Galloway's performance,
how he had caught Mr Coleman and his colleagues "flatfooted"
(only one of whom was left when the chairman brought the embarrassment
to an end).
- A brief perusal of the US press suggests that the Post's
Andrea Peyser was also the only columnist to weigh in. As might be expected,
she excoriated Mr Galloway as a thug and a bully, "a lefty lackey
for butchers". Mr Coleman and his subcommittee had let the side down,
she wrote. "Our Senators did not pipe up. Rather, they assumed the
look of frightened little boys, caught with their pants around their ankles,
nervously awaiting punishment." She concluded: "It's time to
take the gloves off, senators. Kick this viper where it hurts."
- But anyone expecting such colour in the more august broadsheets
will have been severely disappointed. The Washington Post and The New York
Times devoted only inside-page coverage. The Times noted that Mr Coleman,
despite being a former prosecutor, seemed "flummoxed" by Mr Galloway's
"aggressive posture and tone". Both singled out the MP's debating
skill. It is a skill on which, alas, American politics place little premium.
- Much the same went for television coverage. CNN's presenters
smiled gamely as they ran clips of the juiciest Galloway invective. Plainly
though, they too were bemused. This sort of thing does not occur in the
US Congress - and that of course was his achievement, to turn the usual
rules of such hearings on their head.
- Normally, the committee members dominate proceedings,
armed with investigative material furnished by their handsomely financed
staff, and expect respect bordering on veneration from those they summon.
When the matter at hand is as contentious as the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal,
most witnesses appear with a phalanx of lawyers, advising them when to
"take the Fifth" and thus avoid potentially incriminating testimony.
- Not so George Galloway. Not a lawyer was in sight, and
even if one had been whispering in his ear, he almost certainly would not
have listened. Instead, he took the battle to his accusers. Mr Coleman
looked as if he had not been spoken to like that since his father caught
him cheating on high school homework.
- Yesterday, 12 hours after Mr Galloway left town, the
legislative cultural gap was again in evidence as normal business resumed
on the Senate floor. The topic could not have been more important or more
venomous - a row over judicial filibusters that threatens to overturn 200
years of tradition, and bring the chamber's business to a virtual halt.
- But Bill Frist and Harry Reid, the Senate majority and
minority leaders, droned on as if they were introducing an amendment on
the Highway Financing Bill. As usual, the cameras remained fixed on the
speaker. By convention, panning shots are banned, for the simple reason
that these important gentlemen would be seen delivering their Philippics
to rows of empty benches. But then again, that is how America likes its
formal politics; sedate, dignified, eschewing the sort of personal attack
delivered by Mr Galloway.
- Long, long ago, in the 1950 World Cup in Uruguay, the
unfancied US scored a 1-0 victory over an all-conquering England football
team. The performance on Capitol Hill of Mr Galloway (although he is anything
but a Sassenach) might be seen as some belated revenge for that humiliation.
- But, if truth be told, the political shock was little
more noticed here - and is likely to have as little enduring impact - than
that never-to-be forgotten sporting upset half a century ago.