The rapture and regret of leaving Ottawa: part three of “Politics as Unusual,” a memoir
1997 “So, what’s it like? ” I was at the urinal, having a private moment in a too-public life. I wasn’t sure what the guy next to me was referring to. “What’s it like,” he asked again, “…politics? ” Getting my hair cut, at the dry cleaners, in the gym, lined up for a coffee, anywhere and everywhere, it didn’t matter: people want to know “what’s it like? ” being a politician. There are surface answers, the ones you provide: “great,” “interesting,” maybe even “it’s a tough country to govern.” But the real answer remains buried, and can only be appreciated (and uttered) in retrospect. Politics distorts you, turns you into a relentless, vote-seeking, attention-craving political animal. It can hardly be otherwise, because the very experience amplifies the character traits, and feeds so many of the needs, that brought you to Planet Politics in the first place.
Once elected and in government, you are not judged by what you might do—that’s what being in Opposition promises—but by what you’ve just done. Life in government is a perpetual present about the immediate past. Some say it’s about making choices. Left unsaid is that each time you choose, you lose, and it’s a race to replace lost votes. During the election, a young kid asked me, “Sir, are you anybody? ” At the time, all I could honestly say was that I was a wannabe. In office, had he asked me then, I might have said, “I’m your MP, and when you’re eighteen you can vote against me.”
The politician’s brain becomes cluttered with advice from others. “Say this.” “Don’t say that.” “Here’s how to handle that.” “Be careful out there.” “Don’t give them anything.” “Feed them just a little bit.” “Look sharp.” “Be loyal.” “Be tough.” “Show spirit.” “Be boring, and they’ll leave you alone.” “Take the call.” “Don’t take the call.” “Meet them.” “Don’t meet them.” “Don’t you want to win? ” No wonder politicians sometimes can’t seem to get on with it. And then, for some of us, there is identity theft. Whether they present themselves as affiliated with an ethnic group or not, many politicians become hyphenated MPs, their voices appropriated by this or that group. So I was a Jewish MP to many, and especially to the Jewish press; Sarkis Assadourian was an Armenian MP, Eleni Bakopanos a Greek MP, and so on down the list. If you embrace identity politics—and it is very tempting, because there are votes there—you will isolate yourself and risk being seen as a single-issue MP.
You learn to be a good listener; that is, you master the ability to listen to constituents or supplicants who seek your intercession or support for something, and to look engaged and sympathetic. Occasionally you are. Too much of the time, however, it has to be an act—a desperate or necessary act not to disappoint, not to lose votes, not to appear to be the bad guy. We all need to be loved, and none more so than the elected politician. You can turn down a meeting, but risk getting a bad reputation. The easier, more politic course is to take the meeting, make eye contact, listen, and then maybe do nothing. Sometimes you want to help and you can; sometimes you can’t or don’t want to or shouldn’t. Some meetings you miss.
Politicians are always a little out of control. Your calendar is the House calendar, and if a story breaks in the media—as it so often does—you become hostage to it. On a good day, much of your time is spent trying to avoid tomorrow’s crises or, more deliciously, devising traps for the Opposition. The early days of majority government are blissful, the “honeymoon period,” as they say. But soon enough, everything becomes measured against re-election, and control becomes an issue. Insecure about his prospects, the sitting politician, always hopelessly self-centred but now on edge, loses the ability to answer a simple question. “How are you? ” rarely elicits “Fine, thank you.” Instead, pleasant conversational gambits become launching pads for attacking the latest poll results, reflections on your relative progress toward prominence, or gripes and observations about colleagues, the Opposition, the prime minister. The stunned questioner leaves sorry he ever met you.
At one point, I was vice-chair of the House Finance Committee, chair of the Greater Toronto Area federal Liberal caucus, and co-chair of an upcoming Liberal Party policy convention. All of this on top of regular House duty. I was out of control. To sort out my responsibilities, my executive assistant devised a colour-coded schedule indicating which tasks were related to which committee meeting, the upcoming convention, and so on. It was cute, but though I clearly needed to be managed, I just couldn’t let someone else be in charge. “I can’t be the produce and the produce manager,” I complained. The analogy made little sense; I was out of control and confused. “Relax,” my staff said. “We’ll make sure you are where you are supposed to be, and we’ll spritz you every so often so you look fresh, like they do to the fruits and vegetables.” Fortunately, they had a sense of humour.
The politician loses the ability to simply walk into a room or an event. Instead, he is “advanced.” Someone stakes out the room, tells you what the drill is and who is there, and reminds you why you’re there—to work the room. Like a dog fetching a stick, you go in there to fetch votes. I learned to circulate in a figure eight: first to the left, then diagonally across, double back to the left, then diagonally to the opposite corner, and then out. This technique ensures that you are seen by nearly everyone. To fetch the votes, you pause en route, give it your best shot, then move on—keep moving, there are other votes to fetch. Don’t linger. This is a very bad idea. A politician should never be alone, and must never appear mentally, psychologically, or socially vulnerable.
Soon, almost everything the politician says is calculated, every invitation weighed against another. You learn never to say, “Nice to meet you.” If you’ve met this person before, he or she will remind you of the fact. Such contretemps are embarrassing and, probably, vote losing. Best to stick with “Good to see you.” If someone approaches whom you vaguely recognize, do a mental scan of the alphabet—A, B, C, D—and hope that a name beginning with D or G or L pops up. If not, fake it. If accosted by someone who violently disagrees with some position you’ve taken, say, “I see you feel very strongly about this,” smile, and move on. Don’t waste time with someone who hates you or your party.
Awkward when first addressing an audience, you eventually find your political voice and the right cadence. Some politicians are preternaturally nimble. They can dance, bob and weave, and speak on the spot. For most of us, though, it’s tough work developing catchphrases and amusing little stories, and you fall in love with your hard-won creations. They start appearing over and over again in your speeches, but, mesmerized by the sound of your own voice, you don’t notice. Miraculously, often enough you get a laugh, even from people who have heard it all before. Just the same, if you need to constantly recycle your material, as most MPs do, it’s a good idea to have an assistant who consistently finds you speaking engagements with fresh audiences.
For the politician, it’s always about me. Once, during a holiday weekend outside Toronto, my older son cut his lip. We headed directly to the emergency ward at the local hospital. Noticing that we were from Toronto, the doctor said, “I’m from Toronto, too.” “Where in Toronto? ” I asked. “Yonge and Lawrence,” she said. The St. Paul’s riding map dancing around in my head, I asked, “Which side of Yonge Street? ” I was trolling for votes in the emergency ward, my son barely a concern. Me, me, me—it never stopped. You go to sleep wondering and then dreaming about tomorrow’s papers. “Good night, dear.”
The only thing worse for a politician than a morning newspaper without his name in it is a political book without his name in it. Newspapers are daily, and each new edition provides renewed hope. Books hang around, and if you’re not mentioned they just sit there as constant reminders of your insignificance. When a new political book comes out, MPs hit the bookstores—always at odd hours, to avoid detection—and discreetly examine the index to see if they are mentioned. If not, the book is banned from the MP’s office. If you are mentioned, you buy multiple copies for friends and family. (Note to publishers: to increase sales, pack your indexes with as many politicos as possible.) Sometimes, there are too many other MPs about, so rather than thumbing through a new book at the stacks you are forced to buy it to get a closer look. You approach the checkout desk like a teenager buying condoms. The book you want is the third or fourth in a bundle of five or six, all the ones you don’t care about being serious scholarly tomes. (Note to university presses: though your sales are small, you have MPs to thank.) If you are not mentioned in a hot new political book, good excuses include, “I spoke to the author and insisted that I not be quoted,” “I just provided background,” and “The writer missed the real story.” In secret, you begin writing your own book—to set the record straight.
(The visceral need politicians have for attention never leaves them. Look at the political memoirs: Never Retreat, Never Explain, Never Apologize (Deborah Grey), Worth Fighting For (Sheila Copps), No Surrender (Hugh Segal), and the self-congratulatory memoirs of Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien. These books could just as easily be called Still in Your Face or Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? And after the memoir, it’s the book tour, the interviews, the panels. It isn’t about the money—it’s the screen time, their names in print.)
Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, my boys, five and seven when I won the nomination, had become strangers frozen in time. I lived in Ottawa during the week and was thankful to be free of distractions from home. I’d fly home for weekends and make a point of spending as much time as possible with the boys. “The problem is,” my wife said, “you blow into town, change the rules, upset everything, try to be Super Dad, and then, come Sunday night, you’re gone again.”
I’d fly back to Ottawa every Sunday night, vowing to be a better husband and father next time out. I didn’t get it. My wife tried to tell me how bad things were. Self-absorbed and myopic, I didn’t hear her. Then, during a late-night phone conversation, I said, “I guess you’re like a single parent.”
“Oh, it’s worse than that,” she said. “If I was a single parent, I would organize my life accordingly, simplify things. The problem is that you keep coming home.” This I couldn’t help but hear. And this: “What are you doing here? ” my nine-year-old asked me one night when I appeared in his room.
Home life had indeed become strange in my absence. “We’re doing fine,” my older son would say. “The country needs you.” Still, he was always quick to admonish me whenever I used my political voice, that cadence so finely tuned by then. He knew when I was “possessed by politics,” and to him it meant only one thing: I wasn’t being a father. His younger brother was another story. Each time I called, he would ask, “When are you coming home? ” I would try to explain, would say that when I was a lawyer I often arrived home long after he had gone to bed. “I want a father who sleeps in the same house as me,” he said, not missing a beat. He’d grab my legs to stop me leaving for Ottawa, but I would leave. When I was in Ottawa, he slept in our room.
“Two weeks? Two weeks and no new laws? ” one of my boys said. “Yes,” I said, “and millions of Canadians are grateful for that.” I was home for the Christmas break, and I began to realize that it was time for me to stay home, to sleep in my own bed. The alternative was to run in the upcoming election (and probably win), but to what end and at what cost? The cost of leaving was high—I would never be in Cabinet—but the cost of staying was potentially higher and more permanent: loss of my family and my life before politics.
I worried about letting down my colleagues. After all, they had become my surrogate family, I thought. I snapped out of this dream world when former Liberal minister John Roberts (himself ill at the time) told me, somewhat bitterly, “Just remember, at the end of your days in that hospital bed, it won’t be your caucus colleagues gathered around you.” He was right. I made arrangements to see the prime minister.
There comes a time to leave, but most stay on. They’re stuck. It’s understandable. In my experience, nothing else is as exhilarating. At any moment, you can become a hero or a bum, and life in that place in between is its own kick. You convince yourself that if you hang on for just one more election, you will make it into Cabinet, be noticed more, get something important done, and have a softer landing when you finally do leave. Then you can put all the pieces back together again. It’s not hard to give up the perks; what’s tough is giving up your sense of who you are and where you fit in. “I miss deciding things,” an ex-minister told me. He was on to something. Some never give up the hope of running again. They can’t help themselves.
Word got out that I wouldn’t be running. Many colleagues were upset. This was gratifying, extremely so. I felt wanted. At the same time, I was stunned by the number of MPs (from all political parties) who confided in me that they wished they could leave as well. For some, it was too late. Their marriages were in trouble or over, their children estranged. We had spent the past five years telling each other that all was well; many of us had been faking it. We were good at this dark art; we learned it on the job. Other MPs avoided me. Apparently, leaving of your own accord is threatening to some of those who stay. The public doesn’t know it, but politicians pay a heavy price for their service. They seldom, if ever, talk about it. Too bad.
Those who decide to move their families to Ottawa fare somewhat better. My wife and I discussed this once. “Get this straight,” she said. “You got elected. You get to live in Ottawa.” For the parliamentary spouse, living in Ottawa can mean abandoning a career and a family support system. But while some fear losing themselves in their spouse’s political world, others thrive being in Ottawa. Still, either way, rarely is the spouse ever asked how he or she is doing. It’s always about their politician husband or wife.
And how was I, anyway? The search for my name in print had become manic. I scanned three newspapers a day looking for it. I couldn’t stop talking about myself, but it was clear that I had fewer and fewer original things to say. “Do all your reading before you get here,” Paul Martin had warned me, “because once you arrive you have to live off your intellectual capital.” I sensed that I had spent that intellectual capital. Everything had become a win-or-lose proposition. I was always explaining, rarely listening. I had a consumptive cough—Parliament Hill is extremely musty. I sensed that people were just trying to use me to get to someone else. They would greet me, engage in chit-chat, and then there it would be: “I was wondering if you could speak to the minister for me, or even put me in touch with him.” There were other signs. If I saw a colleague with a stranger, I’d wonder, “Who is he with? ” “Why? ” “Do I need to know him? ” And then there was a remark Chrétien made one afternoon (by way of compliment, I think): “Barry, you’re always on my B team.” It was too much. Ottawa was getting to me.
Nothing would be official until I talked to the Boss. I diligently rehearsed my statement. I needn’t have bothered. Chrétien caught on immediately. “How old are your boys? ” he asked. “Nine and eleven,” I answered. “I understand,” he said. “They will need you for a few years. You can come back in five or ten years. I’ll still be here.” That was it. I didn’t know how to react and just sat there, stone faced. He had turned a discussion about me into a discussion about him, had stolen my moment with a self-serving joke. I shouldn’t have been surprised: in politics, it’s always about you, and he was the chief “you.”
This too-brief conversation grated on me somewhat. There was no personal thanks for a job well done—that would come later, in an official letter. Chrétien and I had had our moments, and I remembered them with a mixture of humour, incredulity, and respect. Years previous, he had sent me to Portugal to attend a seminar hosted by Liberal International. The purpose was to teach parliamentarians from emerging democracies how to conduct elections, campaign, etc. What was striking about the group was that I was the only one who had not been thrown in jail at some point or other for expressing political views. I told Chrétien about this, and how embarrassed I was to be offering advice to politicians who had done time when I hadn’t. “You know, Barry, I can take care of that,” he replied. Soon, he almost did.
During the 1995 Quebec referendum, a number of us arranged for buses to bring constituents to the hastily organized rally for the “No” side in Montreal. Quebec’s chief electoral officer indicated that he might charge me and five other MPs, asserting that the cost of the buses must be treated as an expense of the “No” committee. This seemed outrageous—we were federal MPs, so why would we have to comply with the Quebec referendum law? We met with Chrétien to discuss strategy, assuming the government would appoint lawyers to defend us. “Get a bad lawyer,” Chrétien said. We looked at him, not knowing what to say. “What’s the penalty for breaking that law? ” he continued. “Two years in jail or a $10,000 fine,” I said. “Take jail,” he said. “That way, you are sure to get re-elected.” He then reminded me about the Portugal seminar: “Barry, if you go to jail, you’ll never be embarrassed again like you were at the Liberal International.”
As I left Chrétien’s office, I reflected on the man and his complexities. He had told the Liberal caucus to leave Quebec to him, that he had it under control. He didn’t, and we almost lost the country. On the eve of the referendum, he broke down before caucus. We nearly panicked. But then Chrétien’s legendary toughness kicked in. He wouldn’t give up, and marched out of our caucus chamber to do battle. We rallied behind him.
“You can’t leave. You haven’t made it into Cabinet yet,” some said. The conventional wisdom is that a minister “is at least at the table,” but this presupposes that weighty debates go on in Cabinet, and often they do not. The prime minister sets the agenda, and Memoranda to Cabinet are hammered out in advance and then presented to ministers, who in turn are reluctant to attack the plans of their colleagues, for fear of payback. In any event, I had already had a pretty good seat. At inception or implementation, practically everything in government crosses the desk of the finance minister, and as Paul Martin’s parliamentary secretary I had input on a range of policies beyond that of some ministers. Maybe I didn’t need to serve in Cabinet to get my fix, I thought; maybe I was just making excuses. Either way, I was going home.
It’s not clear which is psychologically worse: getting bounced from Cabinet or being passed over for a position. Not being considered one of the stars is deeply embarrassing and hard to explain to family, friends, and supporters. Grown men and women, accomplished and respected in their fields before coming to Ottawa, are reduced to nervous, insecure children when the rumours start flying about a Cabinet shuffle. I got passed over, and I’m not sure I could have swallowed additional humiliations. Instead, I’ve got mementoes, including the following note: “Please be advise[d] that because of the dissolution of the 35th Parliament on April, 27, 1997, you have been overpaid as a Parliamentary Secretary from April 28, 1997, to April 30, 1997. The gross amount of your overpayment is $87.50. We will recover this amount in full from your sessional allowance cheque dated May 30, 1997. We regret any financial hardship this may cause you.” It’s impressive that government officials could keep track of my lousy $87.50, even hunt me down for it.
Six years on, I found myself flying to Ottawa on the day Prime Minister Martin was putting the final touches on his Cabinet. Travelling with me were hopeful MPs, confident they would get the call. I remembered the feeling. As I left Ottawa late that afternoon, I was joined by MPs who were not “in” this time. They were upset. I remembered that feeling, too. “Were you in Ottawa providing grief counselling? ” one asked me. Another vowed revenge. The disgruntled and disaffected enter a political reverse world: they come to Ottawa to be a force for good, and, consumed by hurt, embarrassment, and panic, they turn to revenge.
Some people took my departure as proof “it isn’t worth it.” Not so. I did my time, made a small contribution, and got out alive. “You have only served five years,” others said, suggesting that to be effective you need to spend a lifetime in politics, which is probably the worst thing a politician could do. In fact, Canada would be well served if people moved in and out of politics. There is a huge gap in understanding between the public and private sectors that could be significantly narrowed if more good people moved from one to the other and back again. Unfortunately, there is no real process for reintegrating ex-politicians into the private sector, and if defeated they are considered damaged goods. Also, politics pays poorly compared to many private sector jobs, and, sadly, this keeps good people away.
I had assumed the transition back to the private sector would be fairly smooth. I was a lawyer, and had a professional reputation and a strong sense of myself before entering politics. But then, on the day I left, I had no idea who I was. I had become my political job, and everything I had been and done before simply disappeared. I felt diminished and missed the camaraderie of the Liberal caucus. People stopped trying to use me to get to someone else, and stopped trying to use people close to me to get to me. To step back into the real world is to step through the looking glass and realize that you have been living in a netherworld with its own preoccupations, power structures, rewards, and values, none of which has any significance once you board your flight out of Ottawa. As the clamour faded, Ottawa seemed distant and aloof, and my old world didn’t know what to do with me. It was a double bind.
Some MPs are better about leaving than others; some are even relieved. One defeated Ontario MP had a button printed that read, “I don’t have to listen to shit / I don’t have to take shit / I don’t have to talk to assholes again!”
Few of us exit gracefully or fully. Fearful of losing our identities, we scheme to get another fix. We linger about the edges of political events, most of us forgotten but not gone, and aching to be introduced to the crowd. We’re addicts who crave recognition, the politician’s drug of choice. To spice up a dinner party, hosts sometimes tell guests that “Barry used to be in Ottawa.” I love when this happens, but then the onslaught begins, and I regret the attention. But without prodding, I sometimes do it to myself, nursing conversations around to politics simply to say, “Well, when I was in Ottawa…” The psychiatrist who asked me as I campaigned, “Why you are really running? ” knew the narcissism at the core of most politicians.
Rarely a day goes by without someone asking me, “Will you run again? ” I won’t, but I am a trained politician, and thus always answer, “It is not my current intention to do so.” Always leave yourself some wiggle room. To those who ask, “Do you miss it? ” My simple and honest answer is “Yes—the action but not the life.” I don’t like being an outsider looking in.
When Paul Martin became prime minister, many thought I would go back, and some were convinced that he would ask me to play some critical role. I had myself going into the pmo, to the Senate, becoming an ambassador. I weighed each possibility, tried on each job to see how it fit. In fact, even though I had no intention of running again, with all the talk of Martin looking for star candidates I wanted to be asked. I never was. And Monsieur Dion, “Am I not a star? ” Only in my own mind, it appears.
I’ve seen politicians try to return and not make it. It’s not pretty. There are few second acts in politics. Though it’s been done, to make it in again many things (that you do not control) have to go your way: the nomination, winning your riding, your party winning the election, and, finally, being given something interesting and important to do. When I was younger, all of this was before me, but I had less to lose. Considering the tough competition back then, my wife had said, “I think you should run and lose honourably.” But I won, and I am eternally grateful for that. In so many respects, I’m still basking in that 1993 victory, and a failed comeback would somehow erase it and make me wonder all over again, “Who am I? ” It’s a blessing, I guess, that no one approached me.
Icannot help but think of that older gentleman I met at the door while campaigning. He believed that he had once served in Parliament but couldn’t remember when. Maybe he had. I wonder sometimes if this is what it will come to one day. But then I remember that in the basement of the House of Commons, in the visitors’ centre below the Peace Tower, there are brass plaques on the wall that list those who have served as MPs. My name is there—at least it was the last time I checked. Also, from time to time I curl up with my scrapbooks, painstakingly assembled by my staff. Every interview, utterance, press release (and press mention), and every photo of me during my time in office is in these scrapbooks. I treasure them. Then there is my chair. Thinking it a good idea, my staff purchased and presented me with my chair from the House of Commons. On the back is a plaque with my name and years of service. If I ever forget when I was an MP, I can turn it over and find out. (My grandchildren will probably inherit my House chair. Here’s hoping they don’t use it for firewood.) Unlike that older gentleman, I know I was there. Public service can be hell, and being a politician can distort you like nothing else, but I did my time, and I’m proud of it.
Sometimes it seems as if I never left. When I visit Parliament Hill, older security personnel still recognize me; one even saluted me, as if I was still an MP. (I guess I still look the part, and I still wear my MP’s pin.) Little has changed—not the decor, food, conversation, or sense of self-importance. It’s both sweet and frightening when former colleagues rush up to me and launch into tirades about things of interest only to parliamentarians. Recently, I stood in the members’ lobby of the House as the bells rang calling MPs for a vote. I wondered if I might enter Parliament, if anyone would notice or care.
Ten years on, people still ask me, “Weren’t you an MP? ” It is gratifying, even if they try to pin my party’s latest gaffe on me, or ask for explanations about behaviour, policies, or decisions I don’t understand myself. It’s still great to be noticed. Years on, and I still remember fondly better Liberal days, days when Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin collaborated to strengthen this great land. When I left government in 1997, I received a note from a constituent that thanked us for changing the course of Canada’s financial history, to the benefit of future generations. I’ve kept this note and reread it from time to time. It feels good. So does being back home with Debra and the boys.