Galloway: The man who took on America

How did one maverick MP manage to outgun a committee of senior US politicians so successfully? And did he make any lasting impact? Rupert Cornwell reports from Washington
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The Independent Online

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.

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 his dignity.

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 Fahrenheit 9/11.

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.

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