Election 2008


If that press conference in Paris seemed like a genial meeting of leaders, Senator John McCain has a different style of forum in mind if he becomes president. He says he would borrow a tradition from Great Britain, a tradition you might call the political equivalent of being pelted with tomatoes by your fiercest critics.

NPR's David Folkenflik explains.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: John McCain says he wants to import the British custom of Prime Minister's Questions Period. Here he was last month speaking in Minnesota.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): You could have a venue where there's a group of members of Congress, both sides, you know? Guys that are on my side stand up and tell me how great I am, but there'd be others that would have some very tough questions to ask. I'd like to see that.

FOLKENFLIK: There's only one real question I'd want to ask John McCain - does he have any idea what's he's in for?

Right Honorable DAVID CAMERON (Leader, Britain's Conservative Party): The prime minister has had nine years and countless initiatives. Can he honestly blame people for coming to the conclusion that he's taken his eye off the ball, he's out of touch, and he cannot be the right person to sort it out?

Unidentified Group: Yea.

FOLKENFLIK: That was David Cameron of the Conservative Party - the opposition leader - harassing then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. Pretty much every Wednesday, his successor, Gordon Brown, goes to the House of Commons to field questions from members of Parliament.

Cameron blasts him each time, though, just like on the game show "Jeopardy" it's always in the form of a question. Members ask about anything - war, taxes, health care, crime, scandal, ducklings, sports, whatever. It makes the PM sweat, says Andrew Sparrow, political correspondent for The Guardian.

Mr. ANDREW SPARROW (Political Correspondent, The Guardian): They spend all morning with butterflies in their stomach. They have to devote several hours to preparing for all sorts of questions, and they go in there and they know that it's going to be live on telly. And one silly slip can just make them look daft in the eyes of the public and their colleagues.

FOLKENFLIK: To learn more about this, I turned to someone who's been part of it. Michael Howard led the Conservative Party from 2003 to 2005. He's a fan of McCain, and he says he's a big fan of the Prime Minister's Questions Period.

Mr. MICHAEL HOWARD (Former Conservative Party Leader): It ensures that, first of all, the prime minister knows what's going on, because he obviously has to prepare himself for what can, in certain circumstances, be quite an ordeal. And it gives members of Parliament the opportunity to hold the government and the prime minister to account in a very visible and high-profile way.

FOLKENFLIK: I had to ask Howard, why aren't we as mean over here?

Mr. HOWARD: That's largely because your president is the head of state as well as the head of the government. Our prime minister is just the head of the government. We're not rude to the queen, but we can be as rude as we like to the prime minister.

FOLKENFLIK: I'm in it for the theater. I love watching the British go at it on C-Span. Here again are David Cameron and Prime Minister Brown.

Rt. Hon. CAMERON: Can the prime minister tell us what the chief whip meant by appropriately rewarded?

Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (United Kingdom): That we thank the chairman of the home affairs committee for doing exactly the right thing.

FOLKENFLIK: McCain says he loves this, too, but should he?

Rt. Hon. CAMERON: Haven't we once again seen the prime minister's utter inability to be straight with people?

Unidentified Group: Yea.

Rt. Hon. CAMERON: Why can't he give a straight answer to a straight question?

FOLKENFLIK: There are substantive arguments for it. President Bush holds press conferences infrequently and gets brusque when he feels reporters are insufficiently respectful. As for Bush submitting to questioning by Congress - inconceivable. The White House sometimes refuses even to let senior aides testify.

George Washington University constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley likes McCain's proposal.

Professor JONATHAN TURLEY (Constitutional Law, George Washington University): McCain does have a long history of supporting transparency in government. And a president's session would be a very significant reform in adding a degree of transparency that we've never had before.

FOLKENFLIK: Some traditions can cross the Atlantic. Tony Blair introduced American-style press conferences over there a decade ago, and now, no prime minister would dare get rid of them.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from