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Why Layton stands apart from most politicians Add to ...

No Canadian politician has ever borne physical suffering as publicly as Jack Layton bore his, which is one reason for the very public mourning at his death.

But this grief defies a broader trend: to belittle politicians, who have never been so despised as they are today.

Why do they do it? “Why put up with the grind, the exhaustion of the work, the abuse, the loss of income and security, the loss of family life?” asks Mike Harcourt, former mayor of Vancouver and NDP premier of British Columbia.

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The answer, he believes is “to make a difference.” That’s not what many people think. They think it’s about power and fame and the money you make after you leave.

Politics is the tension between public good and personal ambition. Jack Layton, more than any other Canadian politician, embodied that contradiction.

An August survey by the Centre for Public Opinion Research in the Czech Republic ranked Members of Parliament dead last, below cleaners, in the esteem of that country’s public. And they have Vaclav Havel.

Yet most politicians enter public life for the best of reasons.

“In almost every soul there is a desire to explain to ourselves why we are here,” Bud Bird believes. Mr. Bird was mayor of Fredericton in the early 1970s, then went on to serve as a New Brunswick cabinet minster and federal Conservative MP. He recently self-published a memoir, Sixty Seconds Run.

“We’re all struggling to find ways to make our lives count,” he explains. The difference between the politician and the rest of us is that “they do it in full view.”

Most politicians start out with a desire to fix something. To stop a freeway. To rein in a profligate school board. Community activism leads to a local run, perhaps followed by a stint in a provincial legislature or the House of Commons.

The best of them possess rare gifts. They are able to convince people. They are both collegial and assertive. They want to join things, and they want to lead what they join.

Politicians “are go-to people for others,” observes former Liberal cabinet minister Anne McLellan, “people whose advice is respected in the workplace or in the community.”

But they are also dangerously vulnerable to substance abuse. Not to alcohol or drugs, though that can happen, but to the public stage. They get the kind of attention every day that most people only get on their wedding day. People stand up when they enter the room. There’s a car and driver waiting for them. They whisk through customs. Their name is in the paper. Even when it’s bad news, they’re in the news.

Some politicians find in this attention a fulfillment they hadn’t experienced before. Some hole gets filled. When this happens, they can begin to confuse personal needs with the public good.

Public figures “have to be careful that they don’t get taken in by the notoriety, the attention,” Ms. McLellan warns. “Because if you reach a point where you crave that, now you’re in politics for the wrong reason, and it’s not going to turn out well for you when you’re defeated. Because that kind of person never decides to retire.”

Pierre-Luc Dusseault isn’t there yet. The NDP Member for Sherbrooke, Que., is still getting used to being the youngest MP ever elected to the House of Commons. He was 19 on election day.

“It’s great!” is his judgment of his new life, in contrast to his previous life as a first-year university student. His parents are thrilled, his girlfriend is thrilled. He’s recognized on the street.

But that’s not why he ran. “People know I ran for the right reasons, not just for money and power, that I was running for the values of the NDP,” he insists.

He got into politics, he says, because of Jack Layton. Mr. Layton’s life was a work of political performance art. But he used the public stage to advance the cause of social justice as he saw it, and the public understood that. A strange symbiosis emerged between performer and audience. He almost literally died onstage. And the public’s sadness is real.

Politicians will not soon emerge from the cellar of public esteem. Attack ads, inflated scandals, partisan journalism and the general decline of civility all conspire to diminish those in public life.

“It constantly astonishes me how many people still want to do it, in the face of all the negatives,” Mike Harcourt marvels. But he knows why. “It’s worth it, to exercise this quality or quantity called power.”

Power. Making a difference. Making your life count. Winning the argument. Really, it’s all one and the same.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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