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Prime Minister Stephen Harper attends his riding association barbecue in Calgary, Alta., on, July 6, 2013. The federal Conservatives have rescheduled their Calgary convention. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper attends his riding association barbecue in Calgary, Alta., on, July 6, 2013. The federal Conservatives have rescheduled their Calgary convention. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

LAWRENCE MARTIN

A tip for the PM’s new image fixer Add to ...

For exceptional political putdowns, how about the one visited upon former U.S. presidential candidate George Romney? In 1967, his candidacy collapsed after he claimed to have been “brainwashed” into supporting the Vietnam War.

Senator Eugene McCarthy, never overly impressed by the heft of Mr. Romney’s mental equipment, referenced the brainwashing comment in a rather unkindly way. With George, he said, “a light rinse would have been sufficient.”

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The anecdote is recounted in This Town, Marc Leibovich’s merciless, sarcastic, ego-crushing takedown of Washington’s political class. Everyone on the vanity train is a target: the pols, the flacks, the lobbyists and the journalists – especially the journalists.

New-media queen Arianna Huffington, as the author won’t let us forget, was once described as “the Sir Edmund Hillary of social climbers.” Journalism, says Mr. Leibovich, citing Richard Ben Cramer, has been overtaken – ouch! – “by a biblical plague of dickheads.” We in the business use social media to erect platforms for ourselves. Instead of humbly reporting and commenting on the news, we all want – ouch again! – to be floats in the parade.

Jason MacDonald should read the Leibovich book. He’s just been appointed as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s new communications director. He is the seventh such brain-rinser to serve in the post. A reputedly fine, highly skilled fellow, no fan of enemies’ lists, he should read This Town because its overriding message applies to his town. To wit, power-mongering has reached an egregious scale. Everyone is in it for themselves. Everyone wants to be Moses. They gotta lighten up.

In Ottawa, the notion of altruistic public service, which did in fact exist in certain periods of Canadian history, has become a joke. Voters can see this. It’s why they’re so cynical.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has impressive, scalpel-like courtroom skills. But with his overly aggressive countenance, he comes across like a contestant in The Hunger Games. Mr. Harper, who eased his way into the control-freak hall of fame some time ago, is at his best when he drops his taxidermist aura and shows a lighter side. The problem is that he does it only semi-annually.

Mr. MacDonald should have the Prime Minister out there showing flashes of wit and humour as often as possible. In politics, the guy in the good mood wins. Mr. Harper was in that zone a few days ago, taking digs at Justin Trudeau on the marijuana issue. Sir John A. Macdonald, he said, spoke about the things that matter – “about economic growth, not grow-ops; about a national dream, not a pipe dream.”

Mr. Leibovich refers to Washington as Suck-Up City. Ottawa has some of that, too. But for the comely art to flourish, there needs to be a big social whirl. In Ottawa, the social whirl is such that everyone changes into their pyjamas before the nightly news.

The Ottawa of recent years is better likened to a city in a straitjacket. The anti-intellectual fire-breathers took partisanship and paranoia to unseen levels. Conservatives were told to avoid contact with people from other parties. They might get a disease.

Mr. MacDonald has to try to get Mr. Harper, whose approval numbers have been tanking, out of his straitjacket. Through the years, other communications directors have tried to do so, but scored only sparingly. They’ve all left after a year or so, saying what a wonderful experience they’d had.

Mr. Harper has a hockey book coming out soon, which ought to help make him look more like a regular Joe. He has been moderating his policy book of late – check his prudent stance on Syria – and that could help, too.

But we’re heading closer to election season, which means that Mr. Harper’s more dominant instincts – secrecy, control, bullying – could kick in. This town being Dour Town, the big challenge for his new propaganda guy will be to dampen those tendencies.

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