Trying valiantly in his new book to put a positive spin on his disastrous tenure at the helm of the Liberal Party of Canada, Michael Ignatieff boasts of offering a glimpse of the nobler politics of days gone by.
“One of the younger reporters told me later that our campaign was the kind of political experience she went into journalism to cover,” he recalls at one point.
“I was able to show the country to my young staffers the way Pierre Trudeau had showed it to me in 1968,” he enthuses at another.
It is a powerful sense of nostalgia, the one that courses through Fire and Ashes. And while that might strike a chord with readers who, like Ignatieff, lament what our political culture has become, it goes some distance toward explaining why he led the Liberals to the worst electoral defeat in their history.
The Canada that Ignatieff grew up in, as seen through the eyes of parents who rose through the ranks of the foreign service, was one in which “men in sober suits and bow ties … took for granted that government could do great things.” His view of political campaigns, meanwhile, was shaped by the excitement of Trudeau’s 1968 campaign, which he witnessed as a youth organizer.
Returning to the country after the better part of four decades away, he was shocked to find this world had vanished. And lacking any other compelling explanation for why he wanted to try to become prime minister, he seems to have set about trying to restore it.
Jettisoning the staff that had lured him back to Canada to begin with, Ignatieff surrounded himself with Liberal stalwarts from decades past, and adopted a big-government platform. But policy was almost beside the point. At old-fashioned campaign rallies during his lone election as leader, he would invoke the Liberals’ proud history, while delivering fiery tirades against the Conservative government’s disrespect for Parliament and other institutions.
“The campaign crew may have been tweeting at the back, but up front I could have been wearing a frock coat and standing on a soapbox,” he writes. “Were we continuing a grand tradition or assisting at its last rites?”
While reminiscing about the rapturous responses he received from his audiences, Ignatieff now concedes that the Liberals were in an “echo chamber.” But while offering the requisite disclaimers that voters are always right, he still seems baffled by how a prime minister he considers a “transactional opportunist with no fixed compass other than the pursuit of power,” running a bloodless campaign, managed to thoroughly best him.
To be sure, there were plenty of reasons for that outcome. Ignatieff inherited a party that, loaded with baggage and lacking a sense of direction, was already heading over a cliff. The Liberals, along with everyone else, were caught off guard by the surge of Jack Layton’s NDP. And no matter what sort of campaign he ran, Ignatieff was never going to have much of a common touch with voters. (This is someone, after all, who writes of baseball: “Even the game’s longueurs are lovable because they offer opportunities for reverie.”)
But the nostalgia was surely part of the trouble as well. Eloquent and passionate though he could be on the subject, Ignatieff struggled to connect his concerns about the shifting political culture to Canadians’ everyday worries at a time when a turbulent economy trumped all else.
At the same time, he proved highly resistant to the way modern campaigns are fought. In Fire and Ashes, Ignatieff repeatedly calls for attack ads – of the sort with which his opponents branded him “just visiting” and “not in it for you” – to be banned between elections. He frets that all-important “physical contact between voters and politicians” is at risk from new technologies, and implicitly laments the 24-hour news cycle. “I thought I was in an election,” he writes. “We were in a reality show.”
These impressions should not be discounted just because Ignatieff came out on the wrong side of history, and neither should his other insights about what it is like to seek high office – about communicating in “a world of lunatic literal-mindedness,” or managing the “large egos” of colleagues, or the difficulty of capturing voters’ attention.
While Ignatieff recalls chafing at the implication that he got into politics to get a good book out of it, he approaches the book as an author rather than a politician, and that lends itself to an endearing frankness rare from someone who played at his level.
Aspiring politicians could do worse than to at least consider the advice Ignatieff offers to them in the final chapter, about entering with their eyes wide open but not succumbing to cynicism. They should just do so knowing that it’s coming from someone who himself could not reconcile his fond memories of how the game used to be played with the way it is played today.
Recalling an early moment in his return to Canada, when he read a sombre Hungarian poem to a celebratory audience of supporters, Ignatieff grants that it may have confirmed the impression that he was “an intellectual landed from outer space.” His bigger problem, though, may have been that he campaigned like a political equivalent of Austin Powers, his 1960s self cryogenically unfrozen. Perhaps that gave him a valuable perspective on how things have changed, but it’s not a recipe for success with a 21st-century electorate.
Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail’s Ontario politics columnist.