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Former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant has written a book entitled '28 seconds' that touches on his life and the event in 2009 that killed a cyclist. He is photographed in Toronto Aug 21, 2012. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant has written a book entitled '28 seconds' that touches on his life and the event in 2009 that killed a cyclist. He is photographed in Toronto Aug 21, 2012. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

ANALYSIS

Michael Bryant is sorry, but I want more Add to ...

For someone trying to prove he’s newly humbled, showing up on every available media outlet to hype a book about his downfall is a questionable plan.

Whether he’s seeking a return to politics or just a rehabilitation of his image, though, there is really no playbook for the comeback Michael Bryant is trying to achieve. So he’s attempting to write his own.

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Mr. Bryant’s saga is set apart from most other political scandals most obviously by the fact that he’s a former Attorney-General who was charged (if later exonerated) in the death of another man; nobody has quite been through that before.

But there another bigger difference that makes his challenge even greater, and helps explain his peculiar course of action.

From Bill Clinton after a sex scandal, to Gordon Campbell after a drunk-driving arrest, to Ted Kennedy after he killed somebody with his car, the normal path has been to express contrition for bad judgment.

Mr. Bryant, by contrast, is not apologizing for the death of bike courier Darcy Sheppard; he believes he did nothing wrong. What he is apologizing for – what came before it.

In 28 Seconds: A True Story of Addiction, Tragedy and Hope, Mr. Bryant describes his past self as “an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.” He admits to alcoholism that impeded his performance as an Ontario cabinet minister, suggests that he was a negligent husband, and makes clear he regrets the period in which he showed up at interviews and pointed out his “bling” to journalists.

It reads somewhat like the set-up in a book about a religious conversion, and in a sense it is. Mr. Bryant’s tale is that his altercation with Mr. Sheppard and everything that followed prompted an identity crisis and spiritual awakening.

Having had a somewhat unusual relationship with Mr. Bryant – I helped run his first campaign in the late 1990s, right before I realized that party politics wasn’t for me and moved to journalism, where I’ve intermittently written about his rise and fall since – I have a pretty good idea of both what he’s trying to get away from and how difficult that might be.

At the end of 28 Seconds, Mr. Bryant offers a recent quote suggesting that elected office had a toxic effect on him. “You remind me of you when I first met you, just before you went into politics,” his friend and former staffer Sandra D’Ambrosio tells him. “You were soooo idealistic, and shocked that anyone would support you.”

Sandra is an old friend of mine as well, and I respect her opinion. But my impression of Mr. Bryant is that he wasn’t all that modest or idealistic even back when we all worked together.

This took a while to sink in. It was masked by enough charisma that he lured much of the University of Toronto class he was teaching at the time to volunteer on his first election campaign; enough cleverness that he spoke authoritatively on matters of policy; enough adaptability that he was able to tell most people what they wanted to hear.

That last quality particularly soured me on Mr. Bryant. To the students, he was a left-of-centre urbanite who wanted to help the Liberals rediscover their liberalism; to fundraisers and donors and party elders, he was about business-mindedness and being tough on crime.

Mr. Bryant’s book does not exactly offer a profound explanation for seeking office, as a hot-shot lawyer in his early thirties, to counter my impressions of him. “By fall 1997,” he writes, “gainful employment, marriage and home ownership were now ticked off the to-do list and my attention turned to politics.”

That he had the political bug can be chalked up partly to the fact that both his father and his grandfather, whom he idolized, were municipal politicians in British Columbia. He also describes a seemingly legitimate interest in First Nations rights. And yet his book’s half-breathless, half-contemptuous account of his assent suggests that it was mostly about that ego, and about impatience and adrenalin.

All that, and the glibness that he now says he disdains, made him a media darling. But it also meant that a lot of his fellow Liberals were happy to see him make an exit in 2009, a few months before Mr. Sheppard crossed his path. More junior colleagues complained that he was dismissive to the point of contempt. More senior ones griped of his apparent leadership ambitions and his interest in only the most media-friendly files.

If his book is intended to win back the political crowd, there are signs it’s working. In conversations this week, members of his party who lacked sympathy when he was arrested three years ago now seem moved.

But when it comes to the broader public, the reinvention gets trickier. Most people don’t care whether he was difficult to work with, or wasn’t a great husband; what they wonder about is his role in Mr. Sheppard’s death and whether he feels sorry for it.

It’s perhaps to his credit that Mr. Bryant hasn’t just apologized for something he doesn’t believe in. But it’s going to be a slog to win people over another way.

To the extent that 28 Seconds suggests what that might involve, it comes in a section that won’t make headlines or get excerpted. While he mostly writes about himself, Mr. Bryant also draws on his own experience to talk about how policies affect other people – making a case for adapting the criminal justice system to better identify and provide treatment to addicts, offering suggestions for how to protect those who can’t afford proper legal defence.

It’s the sort of thinking that, by his own admission, he didn’t do enough of when he was Attorney-General. And it makes you wonder how effective he could be at improving public policy, if he ever showed the focus that was lacking during his ascent.

The question, for those trying to figure out how seriously to take Mr. Bryant’s reinvention, is how seriously he takes it himself. What he does next will start to answer it.

 

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