Sunday 30th July, 2006

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New activist President bids to take charge

The fickle world that, one month before was falling over itself in admiration for the T&T Soca Warriors, was, by last week, seeing in this country only cause for ridicule.

For the careful historian, the fig-leaf adverb, “allegedly,” should modify all the verbs in that first sentence.

Such a historian will also note that one conspicuous witness to the ups and downs of world favour is President Max Richards.

It was President Richards who, as Soca Warriors camp follower-in-chief, had basked in the adulation of things T&T after the Sweden game.

No urgent matters of public business had beckoned the head of state back from Germany to his desk at Queen’s Park North.

As one Web publicist reported: “Now that the world is standing up and taking note of the Soca Warriors from the land of carnival and fun in the Caribbean... (even) the English team is treating the Trinidadians like the defending champions, while the Trinidad and Tobago President has cancelled his flight back to the land of the hummingbird in anticipation of the team getting through to the finals.”

What was essentially pappyshow, coming out of Germany, allegedly gained a derisory edge as the T&T reputation for unseriousness shortly reasserted itself.

Last week, amid deepened foreboding, President Richards lamented on TV:

“The image of our beloved country has suffered, and continues to be the subject of ridicule in some quarters internationally.”

Once again, his speech writers or their editors had bungled the presidential syntax. But enough came across in his address to signal a sudden comedown from the Kaiserslautern highs to a Port-of-Spain crisis reality, in which the President felt bidden, somehow, to take charge.

For what he had apprehended about the national condition, “crisis” was, indeed, the President’s strongest word. He beheld an “hour of crisis” that was “deep and urgent.”

But it was its impact on the President himself that he was asking the nation to sympathise with. President Richards is a worried man.

He depicted himself as caught by a “dilemma,” using the word in the Trinidadian way to mean he was troubled and confused. He failed to identify the two equally unpleasant choices before him that the standard usage of “dilemma” implies.

Whatever it was, the President had it bad. Worse, he suggested, than had been experienced by any other: “I venture to say it is a dilemma which has not confronted any head of state in the history of any Commonwealth country.”

That was a historically reckless characterisation. Still within easy recall is Ellis Clarke’s epoch-making 1981 choice, upon the sudden death of Prime Minister Eric Williams, among Kamaluddin Mohammed, George Chambers and Errol Mahabir.

Last week, the usual people assembled at the Red House to remember Eman Carter’s 1990 choice between amnesty for Yasin Abu Bakr’s blood-stained jihadists and death for the hostage Prime Minister ANR Robinson, much of his Cabinet, and the crew of the single TV station.

In December, 2001, the still-resonating “dilemma” of President Robinson was to choose between the incumbent Basdeo Panday, with 18 seats and the larger popular vote, and the challenger Patrick Manning, also with 18 seats.

Real agony can more readily be imputed to the context of such decision-making by predecessor presidents.

On Tuesday, the exaggerated historical, and geographical, scale against which he measured his own undefined “dilemma” achieved for President Richards only an unfittingly pompous profile.

This is, after all, a frontliner in the Soca Broadways, in the North Stand at Panorama, in the Poison Carnival band, and among the Soca Warrior cheerleaders.

This is the Max Richards the country knows, and even loves.

The Max Richards who puts on “Presidential” airs, and professes to feel some sense of national civic pain, and even adopts the Patrick Manning conceit of speaking of himself in the third person, is an evolved and unknown quantity.

Or, a put-up job: an actor given lines to intone about agonies of indecision.

For it is indecision that he finally conveys, having surveyed “the present state of affairs involving the Honourable Chief Justice.”

He speaks of arriving at a decision, after exhaustive consultation and reading of reports. His language reflects the themes made familiar by Attorney General John Jeremie and Israel Khan, SC:

“There must be one law for all, rich or poor, big or small.”

Still, the President claims not to have formed an opinion of his own, even after reading Police Commissioner Trevor Paul’s phone taps of who had called which judge from the Chief Justice’s residence on July 14.

“Without forming a view on these matters, I have concluded that the public interest requires a thorough investigation forthwith,” he said.

Two days later, as I write this, no word has come of the investigation advertised as necessary to take place “forthwith.”

Yet, “action” is another emphasis. His promises of “measured action” and “certain courses of action” inevitably stirs in the public mind a question: has the executive presidency already arrived?

His listeners last week were caused to wonder: what resources for action are in the possession of President Richards?

Arthur NR Robinson had pioneered the model of the activist president who used the power of delay and the power of rhetoric to confound, frustrate and, finally, doom Basdeo Panday.

But Senior Counsel Robinson proved on notable occasions to have been insufficiently learned in the law, and to have seriously misadvised himself.

Today’s activist President is, among predecessors, easily the least learned or seasoned in public affairs.

If the quality of his speech-writing reflects the quality of his chancellery, he may be also the least well-advised.

Attorney General Jeremie need not write the President’s scripts.

President Richards can be depended on to know from where to take his cues. Without needing to conspire, the newly-aggressive Attorney General and the newly activist President work like a team, among other things, to deny newly mendicant Chief Justice Sharma debt relief for his million-dollar legal bills.

The value of such teamwork vindicates the Manning foresight of installing at President’s House a political weapons system in reserve.

• President Max Richards on Friday night

suspended CJ Sharma and appointed Roger Hamel-Smith as acting CJ.

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