Thursday, December 16, 2010

Political Theater

Japan has had 61 different prime ministers since 1885. That is an incredible amount when you compare that to the number of presidents America has had. America has only had 44 presidents, and we started electing presidents a century before Japan started electing prime ministers. These days, a Japanese prime minister lasts only about a year. That’s the amount of time it takes for the public to get fed up with them for getting caught up in some sort of a scandal.

I imagine most onlookers who are unfamiliar with Japan are baffled by this. But what you need to know is that the scandals are not real, they are merely theater. Everything is scripted, written for a foreign audience, typically the American government. In a sense, having prime ministers constantly resign is a creative way for Japan to say no to America. If America wants Japan to do something, rather than saying no, a Japanese government can pretend like it wants to do that thing. Japan will go through the motions of trying to enact that policy but at the last minute before it actually enacts that policy, the government will get caught up in a scandal, which results in a change of government and a new policy direction. Of course, Japan can repeat this procedure indefinitely, which it does, and then nothing gets done.

Even before a prime minister resigns, scandals help Japan avoid adopting unwanted policies because, when a government gets ensnared in a scandal, the media and the political class will focus on the scandal, and not the policy that America wants. When wrapped up in a scandal, Japan will inform the rest of the world that it has political constipation at the moment, please come back later if you want something. This whole routine is what’s called political theater.

You may be surprised to find out that political theater doesn’t only occur in Japan. It occurs in Europe as well. The antics of Silvio Berlusconi are the best example of political theater in Europe. But not only does it occur in Europe and Japan, it also occurs in America. The most recent example is the Eric Massa groping scandal which prevented a meaningful debate on the war in Afghanistan. The lack of debate on Afghanistan made some people, such as Patrick Kennedy, quite angry.

“There's one, two press people in this gallery,” screamed Patrick Kennedy. “We're talking about Eric Massa 24/7 on the TV. We're talking about war and peace; $3 billion; 1,000 lives and no press! No press! You want to know why the American public is fit? They're fit because they're not seeing their Congress do the work that they're sent to do. It's because the press, the press of the United States, is not covering the most significant issue of national importance and that's the laying of lives down in the nation for the service of our country. It's despicable, the national press corps right now.”

But the biggest example of political theater in American history had to be Watergate.

During the scandal, on August 22, 1973, Richard Nixon gave a news conference. In that news conference, a reporter asked him the following question.

“How much do you think your capacity to govern has been weakened?” asked the reporter.

“It is true that as far as the capacity to govern is concerned that to be under a constant barrage 12 to 15 minutes a night on each of the three major networks for four months tends to raise some questions in the people's mind with regard to the president and it may raise some questions with regard to the capacity to govern,” said President Nixon. “The point that I make now is that we are proceeding as best we know how to get all those guilty brought to justice in Watergate. But now we must move on from Watergate to the business of the people, and the business of the people is continuing with the initiatives we began in the first administration. We've had 30 minutes of this press conference. I have yet to have, for example, one question on the business of the people, which shows you how we're consumed by this.”

The scandal reached its climax on October 20, when President Nixon ordered the attorney general to fire the Watergate Special Prosecutor. Both the attorney general and the deputy attorney general resigned in protest. The media called this event the Saturday Night Massacre. Public opinion turned decisively against President Nixon after this.

Of course, for political theater to be useful, it has to have a target. To see who the target was, you need to know what happened on the day before the Saturday Night Massacre. On October 19, President Nixon asked Congress to provide Israel with $2.2 billion in aid. In response, Libya and other Arab countries imposed an oil embargo that dramatically raised the price of oil. Raising the price of oil would hurt many countries. But Japan would probably suffer the most under an oil embargo. It imports essentially all of its oil and it gets most of it from the Middle East. Once the price of oil went up, I imagine Japan asked America to do something about the price of oil. And I imagine America told Japan that it was busy dealing with the Watergate scandal.

During much of the scandal, President Nixon acted like the whole thing was a joke, which it was. On July 27, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee voted to adopt three articles of impeachment. While the House voted, President Nixon swam at the beach in San Clemente.

“I was getting dressed in the beach trailer when the phone rang and Ziegler gave me the news,” said President Nixon. “That was how I learned that I was the first president in 106 years to be recommended for impeachment, standing in the beach trailer, barefoot, wearing old trousers, a Ban-Lon shirt and a blue windbreaker emblazoned with the presidential seal.”

When he finally left the White House, and boarded the presidential helicopter for the last time, right before he went onboard, he smiled and made the V sign with both hands. The V sign has an interesting history in the relationship between America and Japan. Many Americans flashed the V sign after World War II was over. Japan started to use the V sign at about the time America withdrew from Vietnam. I’m sure you can guess what President Nixon had in mind when he flashed the V sign at the end of his term.