What’s Wrong with this Picture?
It was August 31, 2009, and the Connecticut House of Representatives was considering the state’s budget. 1 One of the representatives, Larry Cafero, was delivering a lengthy speech on the matter when a news photographer, Jessica Hill, took a picture of his listeners concentrating on their laptops.
Notoriously, two of these, Jack Hennessy and Barbara Lambert, happened to be playing solitaire at the time. Another representative was on FaceBook, and a third (whose screen can be seen in the foreground) was looking at a baseball highlight.
The published photograph caused an Internet tsunami. Representative Hennessy soon found himself in the hot seat on talk shows, and wrote an abject apology to his constituents. Representative Lambert, who remained mostly unapologetic (claiming that she knew all the arguments and had already made up her mind how to vote), nonetheless resigned the seat after serving out her term. As much as two years later the image was still in email circulation, accompanied by outraged text decrying the lawmakers’ apparent disregard for the importance of the budget.
I’m probably too much of an idealist, but my problem is not with the solitaire, per se, but with all of the laptops that were open (and there sure were a lot of them; they’re almost everywhere in the picture). Either what Mr. Cafero had to say was important, and should be attended to by all present, or it was not. If it was not important, he shouldn’t have got up to speak, or someone (such as the house Speaker) should have called “time” on him. Unfortunately Mr. Cafero’s speech was probably neither important nor unimportant, it may simply have been in another category altogether, namely: grandstanding, or perhaps predictable political platitudes. These days a lot of legislators, in Canada as well as in the U.S., don’t speak to one another at all; and obviously (given all the open laptops) don’t listen either.
As a citizen, I yearn to be served by lawmakers who have significant ideas, important things to say, and have intelligent and attentive debate with one another in order to attain the highest achievable quality of governance. In such a legislative environment, it would be difficult to open a laptop. You might miss something important.
1 There are several internet resources giving background to this photograph. A fairly complete article in greenwichtime.com may be found by clicking here: http://www.greenwichtime.com/default/article/Legislators-caught-in-the-shuffle-14940.php. Then there is this article, including the photo, in blogs.courant.com: http://blogs.courant.com/capitol_watch/2009/09/rep-hennessy-apologizes-for-pl.html.