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2006 Profile

Being Michael Ignatieff Add to ...

The Confederation Building on Wellington Street is the broom closet of Parliament Hill. It is here that neophyte MPs are assigned office space, and the first-term member for Toronto's Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding has three cramped rooms on the ninth floor without so much as a view of the Peace Tower.

I do the arithmetic as I get on the elevator in the lobby on a summer morning: I have known Michael Grant Ignatieff for 40 years, ever since we were both young reporters for this newspaper.

I've spent the previous four weeks trying to make sense of him, a man who has spent all but a few years of his adult life outside the country until taking a plane home to become front-runner in the national Liberal Party's leadership campaign and a potential prime minister of Canada.

His welcome is cordial. We use first names. He fits his tall, lanky frame into a chair at a small table with two recording machines running - mine and one that belongs to his aide. There is no small talk. I am allowed one hour with him.

He knows that I have been poking into his private life, his discarded friendships, his family conflicts, his grimly failed first marriage, into his radical, almost brutal re-creations of himself over the years.

For one hour - 67 minutes, to be precise - he speaks eloquently of his journey through life and what has shaped his thoughts.Finally, as my allotted time nears its end, he turns to his latest incarnation, as a politician, and begins to talk about what he calls the dogfight to lead the party that has governed Canada for most of its history.

He says, "I think this is going to be tough and it's going to get tougher and tougher. I don't know whether I'm up to it. I mean, I think I'm up to the job, but I don't know whether I'm up to the price you have to pay."

I remind him he once said he lacked the ruthlessness to be a politician.

He replies slowly: "I think one says things like that to kind of flatter oneself. But I think that may have been a bit innocent on my part."

Then the next words come out in a rush: "I think there are people who would say I've been very ruthless in my life. I am someone who has worried greatly about the price my ruthlessness has inflicted on others. I have worried about that. I do worry about that.

I don't want to litter the slopes with bodies. There may be people who I've left behind who feel that I was ruthless, and if they feel that, then all I can say is - I wouldn't apologize - all I could say is, I don't want to hurt people. Michael Ignatieff

He does not break eye contact as he delivers this remarkable confession. It's as though he knows who I've spoken to and what I've been told about him, and he's meeting it head-on.

His curriculum vitae is dazzling: a thinker on global affairs lionized throughout the Western world; a Canadian who has garnered truckloads of awards, honorary degrees and distinguished lectureships; the eminent director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights, an author of celebrated books published in 19 languages, and articles that have appeared in the leading periodicals of Britain, the United States and Europe; a novelist, journalist, screenwriter, documentary maker and television personality who has parsed the central moral and political issues of the times, as well as the Freudian recesses of the human soul. His IQ is off the Richter scale. He has been called impossibly handsome. Women delight in his company. His eloquence shames lesser men. He writes beautifully. He moves in the elite, cultured circles of Europe and North America. He has a house in Provence. His French is polished.

For those Liberals seeking the messianic new face last provided by Pierre Trudeau four decades ago, Mr. Ignatieff - who worked as a student on the Trudeau leadership campaign - is the prize. "It's like Garibaldi returning to Italy," enthuses one of his supporters, referring to the great 19th-century patriot and soldier who brought about the unification of Italy.

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