Let us step away for a moment from the ear-splitting racket of the political racetrack, the huffing and puffing, the gyrating polls, the editorial pontifications and advertising positive or negative. Let us concede victory to Michael Ignatieff in the next election or let him concede defeat to Stephen Harper—it’s of little matter to our purpose.
Let us acknowledge that Ignatieff is a writer of international renown, a chum of the high and mighty, a man of many virtues and talents, fluently bilingual, decent, fair minded, polite to old ladies, and respectful of war vets, a model of the person we should hope to see in our public life and as our representative on the world stage.
Let us grant that Michael Ignatieff is more intelligent than we, better educated, better read, better travelled, better connected, better looking, an altogether superior fellow. Let us posit that he entered this very tough game in his advanced years out of an old-fashioned sense of duty to his nation. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that he would make a better prime minister than Stephen Harper, a low bar indeed.
Okay, so now that we’ve got all that out of the way, let’s find a quiet corner where we might sit and ask ourselves why we haven’t been bowled over, swept away, or even had our socks knocked off. To paraphrase Kurt Weill, is it him or is it us?
The backstory begins with a creation myth, an original sin, an immaculate misconception. In January 2005, three kingmakers traversed afar, following yonder star from Toronto to Boston in search of a messiah, he who would lead them out of the political wilderness and into the Prime Minister’s Office.
They were bright, charming, engaged Liberals, and their flattering words showed them to be, in Ignatieff’s eyes at least, discerning judges of character. Like him, they were impressive on paper, not party elders but not Young Turks either.
Alf Apps: senior partner at the law firm of Fasken Martineau, former CEO of the Lehndorff Group and Newstar Technologies, specialist in corporate mergers and acquisitions, chief Ontario organizer for John Turner’s leadership campaign in 1984. He had first spoken to Ignatieff by phone, out of the blue, in October.
Dan Brock: partner in Fasken Martineau’s government relations and ethics practice group, former CBC reporter, former policy adviser to Finance Minister John Manley, hailed as one of Canada’s top 100 lobbyists. He had arranged for Ignatieff to meet seven active Liberals at a secret three-hour meeting in Toronto in December.
Ian Davey: television producer, erstwhile Manley supporter, son of Keith the Rainmaker, the ad salesman who had served as a strategic wizard to Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. One day, Ian was conjuring up future prime ministers of Canada when he landed on Ignatieff and yelled, “Eureka!”
To mix my biblical metaphors, Apps, Brock, and Davey led Michael up an exceeding high mountain and showed him the kingdom to the north and said unto him, “All this power and glory will we give thee,” or words to that effect, “if thou wilt worship us.”
It wasn’t expressed quite so baldly, of course, but the temptation they dangled over their long dinner at the Charles Hotel went something like this: Ignatieff would deliver a barnburner speech at the Liberal convention in March, move back to Canada by the fall, secure a perch at the University of Toronto, write a book, make a TV documentary, find a riding, knock on doors, and get elected. Though a rookie MP, he would ascend swiftly into the cabinet to sit at the right hand of Paul Martin, learn the ropes of Parliament and government for a couple of years, run for the leadership when Martin retired, win, and become prime minister of Canada.
By happenstance, they caught Ignatieff at a moment when he was open to their enticement. He was approaching sixty years of age. He was in the habit of reinventing himself every decade or so. He was feeling a strong nostalgic pull to return to his native land after almost thirty years abroad. And being a renowned public intellectual at Harvard wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, especially after he blotted his copybook at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy by supporting George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.
What better way to cap an illustrious life of thought and letters than to become un homme engagé, an actor on the stage, a servant of the people, a prime minister? What more appropriate destiny for the grandson of Count Pavel Ignatiev, minister of education to Czar Nicholas II, and the scion of a prominent clan of British imperialists, Upper Canadian academics, and distinguished diplomats? Hadn’t young Michael proclaimed it his intention as a lad on the playing fields of Upper Canada College?
By the end of the meal, according to one participant, the question wasn’t “why? ” but “how? ”
It wasn’t unlike the urban legend, often attributed to Margaret Atwood, of the brain surgeon who tells her at a dinner party that he’s thinking of writing a novel after he retires. “Oh, that’s a coincidence,” she is supposed to have said. “I’m thinking of becoming a brain surgeon.”
Aquestion that’s often asked of Michael Ignatieff is whether he knows how much he doesn’t know. If he read the resumés of these three wise guys, for example, did he know enough to read between the lines, to pick up the distant early warnings? It seems not. And how could he be expected to have known, for that would have required paying close attention to the nitty-gritty of Canadian politics for the decades he just happened to be living somewhere else?
Even those of us who stayed behind often forget how close Pierre Trudeau came to losing the leadership race to Robert Winters, a pleasant fellow with movie star looks who had moved back and forth between the cabinet table and the boardrooms of Bay Street. By comparison, Trudeau was a quirky, controversial gamble, relatively unknown to the country, with few roots in the party, an unsettling combination of haute bourgeois aloofness and leftist rhetoric.
In fact, it might have given Ignatieff cold feet if he had remembered that Trudeau initially refused to run for leader because he sincerely believed he didn’t have the experience or the credentials for the job. He felt rather old at forty-eight to be entering such a high-stakes game. He had only been an MP for three years and a cabinet minister for one. And what did he know of business, bureaucracy, or party politics?
“Don’t let that bastard win it,” as one cabinet minister so colourfully expressed it. “He isn’t even a Liberal.”
Canadian Liberals like to imagine themselves as true Grits, les rouges, progressives, even radicals, the heirs of those who rose up against the Family Compact in Upper Canada and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Lower Canada on behalf of the common people. While remnants of that nineteenth-century legacy survive among the grassroots, ruling as the natural governing party for most of the twentieth century made its leaders, ministers, and MPs extremely comfortable with exercising power hand in glove with the regional brokers, the business elites, the senior bureaucrats, the academic camp followers, and the media.
It was a cozy, symbiotic little world, born under Mackenzie King, nurtured by the CEOs who became dollar-a-year czars in Ottawa during World War II, and brought to fruition by C. D. Howe, the minister of everything in the 1950s. Lester Pearson, always the diplomat par excellence, bridged the two lineages. A child of a Methodist manse in small-town Ontario, a student of history at Oxford, a civil servant during the Depression, he leaned toward Keynesian economics and progressive policies without going as far as the CCF. A pooh-bah in London and Washington, a winner of the Nobel Prize, a minister of external affairs, he moved easily among the movers and shakers.
The party thrived on its internal tensions and contradictions. It made a virtue out of being in the centre, somewhere between the United Empire Loyalists and the social democrats, moderate, flexible, open to any good idea or practical solution. It usually succeeded by campaigning to the left and governing to the right. And while its convention resolutions were replete with noble sentiments about equality and sharing, they were invariably drafted by guys in suits, smart, slick, the best and the brightest, hustling to build up their CVs with a stint as an executive assistant or a job in the Privy Council Office between law school and a six-figure salary in Toronto or Montreal.
The foundation of the Liberals’ electoral success was based on simple math: a majority of Ontario plus a majority of Quebec equals an excellent chance for a majority in the House of Commons. That led to an entente cordiale between the party’s machine in Ontario and the party’s machine in Quebec: the boys from Toronto would divide the spoils in Ottawa if the boys from Montreal delivered enough moutons to show up and vote. Ontario got Finance and Commerce; Quebec got Justice and the post office; and they would take turns in the prime minister’s job.
Pierre Trudeau changed the game. He had his own set of ideas. He had his own core of advisers, many of them from Montreal and fresh to power. And because of television and his extraordinary personality, he had his own direct relationship with the Canadian people, which freed him from feeling beholden to the old guard of the party and the traditional ways of doing things.
He slighted Pearson by dissolving Parliament before the House had its chance to pay homage to the outgoing prime minister. He introduced reason and order into Pearson’s crisis management chaos. He trashed Pearson’s beloved Department of External Affairs, where Ignatieff’s father was a star. He humiliated Pearson’s warhorses with experiments in participatory democracy and regional desks. He turned away from Pearson’s moves toward special status for Quebec. In the eyes of the Pearsonian Liberals, of whom Ignatieff often says he’s the last in existence, he took their party away from them.
The left Liberal elites in Toronto were disappointed, what with Trudeau’s limp nationalism and the War Measures Act, but they were appeased to a certain extent by the return of Keith Davey, Jim Coutts, and Dick O’Hagan, three of Pearson’s canniest advisers, after the party’s near-loss in 1972. Determined to learn the art of the possible from them, anxious to win back Ontario, and needing to placate the NDP in a minority Parliament, Trudeau led an activist, pro-Canadian, progressive government and was rewarded with a majority in 1974.
Meanwhile, the party’s right wing sat in their clubs, offices, and faculty lounges and stewed. John Turner, the Prince Valiant of the ancien régime who had been trounced by Trudeau in 1968, resigned as minister of finance in 1975 and returned to his table at Winston’s. Donald Macdonald quit two years later to join a prestigious law firm and a number of corporate boards, only to be succeeded as finance minister by Jean Chrétien, whom most Bay Street bankers and brokers dismissed as a clown. Stagflation set in, deficits rose, and the prime minister fiddled with the Constitution while Canada burned.
These weren’t thick or incompetent people. On the contrary, they were accomplished leaders in their community and professions. Like many smart, successful people, however, they tended to assume that their expertise in one field made them experts in the field of politics. Worse, like many Torontonians, they tended to confuse their own interests with the interests of the nation. They drank their own bathwater and thought it the elixir of wisdom. They looked out from their towers on Bay Street and saw their own images reflected in the glass. As Madame du Deffand is said to have remarked when told of the political philosopher Helvétius’s theory that every action, including generosity and kindness, is based on self-interest, “Helvétius has revealed everybody’s secret.”
There were deep and genuine policy concerns, to be sure, but there was also the very human matter of ego, access, and touchy-feely gratification. (I know two prominent businessmen who once wagered during a drunken lunch on which of them could get the prime minister to call them back the fastest.) Trudeau didn’t really know the Toronto elites and didn’t much care to know them. They feared and respected him at the same time as they thought him a socialistic dilettante.
At one meeting organized by O’Hagan to break the ice between the prime minister and the city’s media tycoons, someone made a lighthearted put-down about René Lévesque not knowing anything about football. “It may be difficult for you people to understand,” Trudeau snapped, to everyone’s surprise and discomfort, “but football is not a French Canadian sport.”
Economics aside, he was leery of their softness toward Quebec nationalism. They didn’t know Quebec; they were cowed by it, and keen to promote their own sense of Anglo-Canadian nationhood; they were susceptible to the idea of deux nations in which French Canadians were given Quebec, and WASP Toronto held sway over the rest of the country.
In 1979, after ten years of French Power, it looked as though the restoration was imminent. Trudeau was defeated by Joe Clark, not least because the majority of seats in Ontario swung over to the Tories. John Turner was being pressed into making a comeback. Failing that, Donald Macdonald would do. But fate conspired against them. When Clark’s government fell on its first budget, Trudeau rescinded his resignation, led the Liberals into the sudden election, and was miraculously returned to power with a majority.
It wasn’t good enough that Trudeau won the Quebec referendum, patriated the Constitution, fought to cap oil and gas prices in Ontario, and entrenched the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Inflation, interest rates, and the federal deficit soared through the roof. The Bay Street Liberals had had enough.
At the party’s convention in November 1982, a twenty-four-year-old law student named Alf Apps put forward a resolution attacking the PMO’s “non-accountable, non-legitimate, non-elected” inner circle. Everyone saw it for what it was: an unprecedented attack on Trudeau’s leadership on behalf of the Toronto business community’s knight in shining armour, John Turner.
Alf Apps was a busy little beaver in those days. Shortly before the 1982 convention, he and two other young Liberals, Terrie O’Leary and Peter Donolo, went to Montreal to check out a successful businessman with an illustrious name in Liberal circles, Paul Martin Jr., CEO of Canada Steamship Lines and son of the veteran cabinet minister. Apps decided to stick with Turner, and Donolo ended up with Chrétien, but O’Leary remained at Martin’s side, where she was joined by a cadre of disaffected youngsters, including Richard Mahoney, David Herle, and Mike Robinson.
Martin didn’t look much like a winner in those days. He was awkward with people, a bumbling speaker, inexperienced as a campaigner, with an explosive temper on a short fuse. But they liked him. They liked his entrepreneurial views, they liked the grudge he bore against Trudeau for humiliating his father in the 1968 leadership race, and they liked the power base that his wealth and connections secured. Most of all, they liked that he was willing to put himself completely into their hands to be trained for public office. (Is this starting to sound familiar yet?)
Over the course of the next ten years, while John Turner was leading the Liberals into two catastrophic defeats with the assistance of Alf Apps, they taught Paul Martin how to deliver a decent speech, how to schmooze the membership and the media, how to offset his anger and pro-business bias with warmth, wit, and the rhetoric of compassion. They positioned him for the leadership race against Jean Chrétien in 1990. They followed him into the Department of Finance. They worked the riding associations across the country, the Ottawa press corps, and the money guys in Toronto, many of whom knew him on a first-name basis from U of T law school or business connections. Paul asked their advice. Paul gave exclusive interviews. Paul promised everybody whatever everybody wanted to hear.
By contrast, Chrétien was inaccessible and enigmatic. Sure, he had served time on the boards of Toronto-Dominion Bank and Gordon Capital, but he liked to throw barbs at the greed and selfishness of bankers and CEOs. Sure, he had close connections with Power Corporation and more than two decades of experience as a cabinet minister, but he went to extraordinary lengths to maintain his populist image and grassroots connections. Sure, he balanced the budget, signed NAFTA, opened up China, led the Team Canada trade missions, crushed the separatists with the Clarity Act, and won three back-to-back majorities for the Liberal Party, but hadn’t he also sabotaged John Turner, refused to allow the big banks to merge, jeopardized relations with Canada’s largest trade partner by saying no to the US invasion of Iraq, and fired their friend Paul, the best finance minister since Confederation?
With the Liberals high in the polls, on the uptick in Quebec, and headed toward another majority, Chrétien seemed reluctant to give up the reins in a hurry. But after twenty years of patience and stealth, Martin and his handlers were getting rather long in the tooth; there was every possibility that time would catch up to them before they could reap the fruits of their efforts. It wasn’t even the case that Chrétien was a deficit-running dirigiste like Trudeau. It was simply Bay Street’s turn at the centre.
It took a few intrigues and a bit more time, but the Martin gang eventually forced Chrétien to announce a departure date. Then, frustrated that he was lingering too long, they pushed him out of his office ahead of schedule, and the sponsorship scandal landed in Martin’s lap instead of Chrétien’s. In a lunatic manoeuvre that backfired badly, the new prime minister set Justice Gomery on the government of which he had been a prominent member, and purged many of the pros with the experience and skill to have won three elections.
One senior bureaucrat, casting his eye over Martin’s team, observed that “the kids” had arrived. These skilled operators, who had spent almost all of their adult lives trying to get into the PMO, found themselves with no actual reason to be there. No agenda, no priorities, no ideas. And the general who had brought them, however good he was at following orders and pleasing everyone, turned out to be indecisive and conflicted once the buck stopped with him. He who had marched them up the hill marched them down again, blowing the gains in Quebec, detonating the lead in the polls, and barely surviving with a minority government in June 2004.
Such was the sorry state of affairs when Apps, Brock, and Davey arrived in Boston looking for a new horse. Martin was sixty-six years old, he was damaged goods, and their first choice—John Manley, Martin’s successor as finance minister—was already in other hands. It’s just as likely, of course, that Michael Ignatieff saw them as the horse that he would ride to power. If so, he should have inspected their teeth a bit more thoroughly. They were secondary players, amateur enthusiasts from the business side of the party, political venture capitalists looking for the next big thing, with an unbroken record of backing losers or duds.
Indeed, the tantalizing scenario by which they lured Ignatieff north didn’t work out quite as smoothly as they had promised. He was barely back in Canada when the Martin government fell and an election was called for January 23, 2006. All at once, he was tossed into the political arena with no time to adjust to his re-found-land, no opportunity to learn how to operate the levers of politics and government. Plunked into a “safe” riding in suburban Toronto, he found himself attacked by a swarm of irate Ukrainians who were pissed off by an insult they perceived in one of his books. No sooner was the election over and lost than Martin resigned and a leadership race began. Ignatieff really had no choice but to run. If he lost, he would be better placed for a second chance. If he won, bingo!
By this point, Ignatieff’s intelligence and politeness had impressed a number of other Toronto power brokers, who were also in search of a horse to wear their colours after their favourites, Frank McKenna and John Manley, refused to be saddled. He had all the benefits of a fresh face, a dazzling background, and an empty vessel. If his inexperience and long absence from the country alarmed some Liberals, others took comfort in the thought that he would need them all the more and be all the more malleable in their hands if Apps, Brock, and Davey were ever willing to share him.
For a neophyte apprenticing on the job in public, Ignatieff rarely lost his confidence or his cool. But he suffered a handicap that couldn’t be casually dismissed, like his empty speeches or awkward glad-handing, as the forgivable blunder of a novice: he had been out of the country for almost three decades! He stumbled blindly into the thickets of Israel, Afghanistan, and carbon taxes.
Nothing betrayed the gaps in Ignatieff’s knowledge more than his reckless foray into Quebec nationalism. Just as Lord Durham had dropped in on the Canadian colonies and found two “nations” warring in the bosom of a single state, so too did Count Ignatieff when he landed here, in his own words, like a Martian outsider. The difference was that while Durham wanted to eradicate the French Canadians, Ignatieff proposed recognizing “the Québécois” in the Constitution—and invented a single aboriginal nation while he was at it. Only a nincompoop would have dragged such an issue back from the dead on the eve of the Liberal convention, a nincompoop or someone who hadn’t been around to remember the divisive agonies of the 1980 referendum, the struggle for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the battles over the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, the second Quebec referendum in 1995, the Clarity Act, and the resignation of Lucien Bouchard.
Here you had the biographer of Isaiah Berlin arguing on behalf of ethnic nationalism, the heir presumptive of Pierre Trudeau twisting the Charter into an ode to collective rights, the champion of national unity promoting the concept of Canada as three nations. To top it off, you had Alf Apps, of all people, declare that Trudeau himself, were he alive, would have agreed with Ignatieff’s stance, when in truth Trudeau fought with his dying breath against this inaccurate, retrograde, and dangerous idea.
But what did the mechanics care about such arcane, irrelevant stuff? They were hard at work, with Ian Davey as campaign director, packing the constituency meetings and electing delegates. Ignatieff took an early lead and maintained it going into the convention. The Bay Street Liberals showed up in Montreal in early December 2006 feeling pretty smug. In a field of eight candidates, six were from Toronto. If Ignatieff stalled, the prize would probably go to Bob Rae, who had let go of his weak attachment to socialist principles long before and become a friendly face on the cocktail circuit and charity boards around town. Imagine then their shock when Ignatieff and Rae both stalled, and another Quebecer, the only one in the race, the nerdy and inscrutable Stéphane Dion, stole the crown.
Hapless Dion. For all his experience and courage as a minister under Chrétien and Martin, he proved incapable of growing into the top job, and the attacks on his geeky personality and fractured English in Toronto circles bordered—as Jimmy Carter might put it—on racism. After propping up the Harper minority for more than a year and a half and then losing the election after the government orchestrated its own fall in September 2008, Dion was on his way out.
Suddenly and with no warning, egged on from behind the curtains by Chrétien, he made the one and only bold move of his short, sad leadership. On the first day of December, he signed a coalition agreement with the NDP and the Bloc Québécois that would have replaced the Conservatives with a Liberal-dominated cabinet. The deal collapsed when the Governor General allowed Harper to prorogue the House of Commons before a vote of no confidence could be held, so no one will ever know whether it was a brilliant or an idiotic idea. However, it did serve to shake things up in Ottawa. Harper was humbled for the first time, Dion resigned within days, Bob Rae and Dominic LeBlanc withdrew their hats from the ring, and Michael Ignatieff was named interim leader on December 10, to be confirmed at the party convention in May. It was a very close call for the Toronto guys. The coalition might have made Ignatieff prime minister sooner than expected, but having him in bed with the NDP was never in their playbook.
When the dust settled early in 2009, Ignatieff looked pretty good. He had another year under his belt in the Commons and was that much further away from the charge of being a carpetbagger. He had earned the support of most of the caucus by his hard work and gracious manners, criss-crossed the country giving speeches and listening to Liberals, learned how to weigh his words and dodge the bullets, and settled into Stornoway. The banking crisis and Barack Obama’s election played to the traditional Liberal strengths of government regulation and help for the unemployed. The coalition fright forced Harper to respond to the economic meltdown with public spending and social measures. As Ignatieff climbed in the polls, the party scented victory if it simply rallied around the new leader, built up its campaign war chest, and let the recession bring down the Conservatives.
If there were advantages in being spared a costly and divisive internecine fight, there were also disadvantages. Leadership races are training sessions for election campaigns. They test the contenders under fire. They force them to think through the issues and practise articulating them. They often give a bump in the polls to the winner and the party. All that was particularly important in Ignatieff’s case. Did he have the stamina and the thick skin necessary to win? Did he have a vision, a plan, a set of principles, or at least a couple of good ideas? Did he have the royal jelly to be prime minister? Would people find him likeable, admirable, and trustworthy, or a cold, oily, arrogant charmer?
Despite his earlier run for the prize, Ignatieff remained an unknown quantity, a stranger in our midst. He was our first deconstructionist politician: he kept repeating that political leadership was about storytelling without ever telling us a story; he said that Canadian unity needed a narrative but didn’t articulate one. Like a critic dragged up onstage to play the lead on opening night, he couldn’t help analyzing his own performance instead of being in the role. Too often, when audiences were looking to him for bold direction, he tormented himself over the details as though still in a seminar at Harvard. He rambled. He mused. He tiptoed ever so cautiously through the minefields. He walked into rooms without any apparent idea of the message he wanted to deliver or who was who. He excused himself on the grounds that he was new, not just to the role but also to acting, which only sowed more seeds of doubt about whether he was genuine and his own man.
Fortunately, he had four months before the convention to improve his performance below the radar of intense scrutiny. To emerge, as it were, fully formed in the spring, fresh and exciting, with a speech to arouse the faithful from their chairs and send them off into battle, and a new book of family memoirs to prove his pedigree as a dyed-in-the-wool Canadian. Unfortunately, the speech and the book ended up raising even more questions than they answered—serious and unsettling questions—for they were long on sentiments and short on specifics.
Specifics are rarely about the specifics. Voters are smart enough to know that promises will be broken and circumstances will change. A party platform is more about values, priorities, and future prospects. Is the emphasis on deficit reduction or job creation, social justice or tax cuts, military expansion or environmental regulation? Conversely, a lack of detail often betrays a lack of any purpose beyond power itself. That’s where Ignatieff happened to be most vulnerable, and it’s exactly the soft spot the Conservatives would hit, with crippling effect, in their attack ads.
As Ignatieff once put it, in the annoyingly folksy way he adopts when trying to be a man of the people, “What the heck are the facts? ” The facts, to return to the ur-event, were that Apps, Brock, and Davey hadn’t paid much heed to what Ignatieff might do for the good of the country, however much they might protest to the contrary. They were there for the fun of the sport and the thrill of being insiders. If they were looking for their own Trudeau, it wasn’t because they were looking for Trudeau’s vision or Trudeau’s independence of spirit. They were looking for Trudeau’s panache as an intellectual cosmopolitan, his marketability, his sex appeal, his magic. They thought they had found it—and, just as important, found it first—in Michael Ignatieff.
Nor is there any evidence that Ignatieff himself had anything like Trudeau’s overarching sense of purpose and principle in entering public life. Trudeau could sum up his in one sentence; Ignatieff couldn’t sum up his in a dozen books. A close reading of his articles and essays revealed that he was all over the map (and not just geographically), while adept at papering over the discrepancies and reversals beneath his gifts for prose and argumentation. Just when you’re convinced he stands for individual freedom, he starts making the case for collective rights. No sooner do you have him pegged as a committed cosmopolitan than he pops up as a passionate patriot. He even refers to himself as an American in one place, a Brit in another, and a Canadian somewhere else.
He often claimed, in his own defence, that words didn’t really seem to matter as much when he was an intellectual—a justification that might chill the heart of every American kid who is still learning how to walk on artificial limbs because Michael Ignatieff once carried the day in an oh-so-frightfully-interesting debate. (Even his recantation in the New York Times was, as one wag put it, “more mea than culpa.”) As a reporter and novelist, too, he was practised at channelling the voices and views of others, and there were indications he was trying to do the same as a politician. But being a good mimic or chameleon is not the quality of a good prime minister. The PMO is no place to read books; 24 Sussex is seldom a salon. If you don’t know what you want to do by the time you get there, your true self will get buried under the workload, the crises, and the demands of interest groups.
Jean Chrétien used to say that “vision” is the most overrated word in politics, because it can mean anything, everything, and nothing all at the same time. He replaced it with experience, knowledge, judgment, instincts, and a Red Book of policies. Deficit reduction? Set a 3 percent target and stick with it through hell and high water. Iraq? If the United Nations goes, we go, and if it doesn’t go, we don’t. Health care, Kyoto, election spending? Plant a marker firmly in the ground and hold fast until the position becomes untenable.
But Ignatieff had none of Chrétien’s advantages to showcase. He had no experience running an organization, let alone a government. He wasn’t a lawyer, an economist, a businessman, or even a professional politician. His judgment on Iraq was wrong. His instincts about politics and people were unproven. Instead of a Red Book, he came out with a slim volume on patriotism, part flatulent sermon, part history of his mother’s illustrious family, part agenda for national unity, in which he considered a high-speed rail connection between Ontario and Quebec but never once mentioned CBC, mass communications, language, or the arts.
True Patriot Love was the canary in the coal mine, though most commentators cut Ignatieff a lot of slack because they were his friends, had the same agent, loved the idea of one of their own in power, hated Stephen Harper, or never bothered to read it. Hastily written, a patchwork of rhetorical platitudes and logical contradictions, it signalled that the celebrated author and public intellectual had put himself into the hands of advisers and publicists for whom the content mattered less than the cover. For fans of his wonderful book The Russian Album, or Barack Obama’s profoundly honest Dreams from My Father, Ignatieff’s reluctance to confront the deep questions of his self-imposed exile to Great Britain and the United States or his ready-aye-ready response to Bush’s war in Iraq carried evasiveness to the edge of dishonesty.
Even if public relations had been the goal, Ignatieff and his entourage showed dreadful political instincts in not delaying the book’s publication. Rather than strengthening his roots as a son of the True North strong and free, his account of the Grant and Parkin clan played to his weaknesses. It hardly helped his reputation as a condescending, narcissistic elitist to highlight his childhood in the bosom of the Upper Canadian establishment. He may have come from a dynasty of distinguished educators rather than plutocrats, but he seemed all the more obliged to the moneyed gentry because of that. If Bob Rae had always seemed a Liberal in NDP clothing, Ignatieff came across as a bred-in-the-bone Tory, a Vincent Massey Liberal, traditional in values, superior by nature, imperialist at heart, proud, ambitious, and entrenched. Woe to the family member who tried to deviate from the narrow path of jingoism and conformity. No wonder Ignatieff was the pet of Rosedale matrons and the York Club.
That, of course, is a rather small and unpopular demographic beyond downtown Toronto. Rich, yes. Influential, yes. An important constituency, beyond question. But much of the country hates the entrenched privilege and inherited snootiness of this latter-day Family Compact, while new Canadians don’t really give a damn. Ignatieff would have been better served to once again play up his immigrant heritage, Russian aristocrats who arrived penniless on these shores in search of freedom and prosperity, for that’s closer to today’s Canadian narrative than the driving of the last spike at Craigellachie.
There’s something oddly irritating about Michael Ignatieff that’s hard to pinpoint. It’s expressed obliquely in countless forms: his mid-Atlantic accent in English, his Parisian French, his languid delivery, his patrician air, his supercilious regard, the brass buttons on his blue blazer, the way he wants to ingratiate himself with the plebeians by slipping into slang or dropping his g’s. It’s probably a reflection on the Canadian spirit (maybe commendable, maybe not) that after a few minutes in his company many experience an almost irresistible urge to push him off his pedestal. Even his family was said to believe that the terrible thrashing he received for one of his novels, however bad for his ego, was probably good for his soul.
Envy doesn’t fully account for it. Nor can it be glibly dismissed as tall poppy syndrome, the pleasure mediocre people take in cutting down anyone who presumes to rise above the average. After all, Canadians tolerate and admire all kinds of high achievers, from billionaires to novelists, sports stars to scientists. But we get weird around the question of classes and prefer to reserve political power for the masses. Our ancestors fought a rebellion for that reason. Mackenzie King was a grandson of a rebel leader even while a pal of the Rockefellers. Trudeau was an iconoclast despite his wealth and style. The little guy from Shawinigan succeeded where the Rhodes Scholar who had danced with Princess Margaret failed. And while Upper Canada College may have produced an honour roll of ministers, judges, generals, diplomats, professors, authors, artists, business leaders, and Conrad Black, it has yet to produce a prime minister.
Our elections aren’t usually about extremes. Most parties that want to form enduring governments in Canada will try to hug the centre. What most Canadians seek, therefore, is balance and fairness. If too far left, pull back right. If too far right, pull back left. If too often in, throw them out. If too long out, put them in. And because democratic politics is one of the few vehicles by which those without power in business or society can scale the heights of power, there’s a deep resistance to letting the business and social elites run government as well. Who best represents me? is the question most voters ask themselves at the ballot box. Who best will speak up for the interests of the average citizen against the interests of the self-serving elites?
This was the quiet revolution that Trudeau initiated and Chrétien continued. The one may have inherited millions, the other may be related to a billionaire by marriage, but both saw themselves and were seen as outsiders by temperament and democrats by conviction. If the old brokerage politics led to inequalities or the status quo, they appealed, over the heads of the premiers, the CEOs, the editorialists, and the intellectuals, to the common sense of the common people. The people defeated three referendums, one national and two in Quebec, while their governments were yelling at them to vote yes. The people opted for a self-made electrician’s son from Baie-Comeau over a high-priced lawyer from Bay Street. The people supported the Charter and opposed the invasion of Iraq, and the people were right.
Here, I think, we come to the nub of Ignatieff’s troubles. If a political leader isn’t exceptionally clear and courageous about what he wants to accomplish in the face of the demands and wrath of the elites, he has to have a transcending connection to the people. Ignatieff has demonstrated neither. Not only does he exhibit all the mannerisms of a Toronto sophisticate, his background on both sides and his own record suggest he is more a courtier than a counterweight to the powers that be. Though Stephen Harper may be more so, he is at least a familiar, middle-class, suburban kind of dork who isn’t likely to be reading War and Peace aloud to Laureen or vacationing at his house in Provence. And French Canadians grow up on the fable of the dark, handsome stranger who comes from the faraway city and woos the innocent farm girl with his honeyed words. Beware, goes the moral, for he is the loup-garou.
Ignatieff’s fate may have been sealed shortly after the convention when Alf Apps assumed the presidency of the Liberal Party, Dan Brock became the leader’s principal secretary, and Ian Davey was appointed his chief of staff. The boys were reunited, along with many of their old pals and Davey’s girlfriend, communications adviser Jill Fairbrother. (She tried to spin the fact that there were dozens of non-Torontonians working in the office, but unless it’s a madhouse how many of them would get regular access or the last word?) The message was evident. Ignatieff was going to dance with the guys who brung him, even if they were as unready for their jobs as he was for his. Toronto was to have the leader’s ear at last, and it was soon telling him what it wanted: corporate bailouts one month, deficit reductions the next.
Loyalty was no doubt one factor. Trust another. Comfort a third. And Ignatieff once told a family anecdote that suggested a fourth. When his great-grandfather George Monro Grant was principal of Queen’s University, Sir John A. Macdonald confronted him by asking, “Do I have your support? ”
“You always have my support, Prime Minister,” Principal Grant replied, “when you’re right.”
“Ah,” said Sir John, “but I need people who will support me when I’m wrong!”
It’s a good story but lousy politics. Leaders are inevitably surrounded by sycophants, Iagos, office seekers, and contract lobbyists who are forever telling them how clever they are, how smart, how absolutely right. It’s never easy to speak truth to power, but particularly difficult if your advisers also happen to be your friends. When times get tough, the wagons circle, the messengers with bad news have trouble getting through, and solace is only to be found in the company of yes-men.
Times did indeed get tough, as they always do in politics, but with a speed and ferocity that took everyone by surprise. Cocky with success or merely exhausted, Ignatieff and his team drifted through the summer—“thinking,” as the leader put it cryptically—but he emerged with no great ideas and no new reasons why the Thinifer should replace the Fattypuff. Ignatieff’s decision to try to bring down the minority government regardless came across as irresponsible, macho opportunism just when the country seemed to be pulling itself slowly and precariously out of the recession. And while his narrative was a bit clearer, his performance was just as erratic.
Worried about saying the wrong thing, world weary from the demands and pace of politics, he often looked worn down, beaten down, or just plain down. Indeed, there were rumours that he needed a nap in the afternoon or turned into a snarling wolf by nightfall. Rather than arouse a partisan rabble with the old rah-rah, he tended to smother it with an intense, lugubrious recitation of gloomy statistics and recycled programs. Rather than be recharged by his crowds like most politicians, he drained the energy from a room like some strange form of black hole. Rather than spring to his own defence against Harper’s attack ads, he looked barely able to keep his eyes open while standing, bizarrely, in a sunlit forest.
And then there was the bewilderment, the helplessness, the awful lurch in the pit of the stomach when he and his party went into a free fall in September. By the end of the month, his Quebec lieutenant, Denis Coderre, had quit his post over a nomination dispute in Outremont, taking a parting shot at the “Toronto advisers who know nothing about the social and political realities of Quebec.” By late October, his poll numbers were down more than ten points to 25 percent, Dion territory, and there was talk of a Harper majority. The press, smelling blood, turned on the wounded hero and moved in for the kill.
Predictably, there arose screams of anger and panic from party members, demanding that the gods be appeased with a sacrificial offering. Just as Alf Apps had called for the head of Jim Coutts, now the knives were out for Apps, Brock, and Davey by those who resented—and wanted—their influence.
“It always happens when you have an interesting patch of water,” Ignatieff told the Globe and Mail, “that people say, ‘Let’s throw some crew to the sharks, that’ll make the boat go better.’ If my staff doesn’t perform up to expectations, I won’t hesitate to make changes. But [long pause] in my view, we’re doing fine.”
Three weeks later, on October 27, he threw Ian Davey overboard. Like Horatio Hornblower roused from a dream by a cry that his ship was cruising toward the rocks, he finally did something really smart: he persuaded Peter Donolo to be his new chief of staff.
On the surface, Donolo seemed more of the same, a pollster and public relations guy from Toronto. In fact, he was a breath of fresh air. Originally from Montreal, of Italian heritage, bilingual and free spirited, he knew the party and the players intimately, was highly regarded by almost everyone in Canada’s political class and the media, and brought years of experience in the Opposition leader’s office and the PMO as Chrétien’s director of communications. It helped, too, that he had an impish sense of humour and actually liked other people. Most useful of all, Donolo was an insider who understood grassroots politics. He wouldn’t have written off Paul Martin Jr. so early in the game and cast his lot with Jean Chrétien unless he knew that the important votes weren’t on Parliament Hill or Bay Street. Nor was he naive enough to believe that the spin matters more than the content.
Of course, there was plenty of work to be done to polish Ignatieff’s delivery of the message in time for the election campaign. Before that, however, Donolo needed to sit down with his leader, take him all the way back to the beginning, and tell him in no uncertain terms that the tough question isn’t “How? ” The tough question is “Why, Michael, why? ”
Ron Graham has written four books about Canadian politics, including The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada.
Christopher Wahl regularly documents the royal family for Vanity Fair.