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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Ignatieff wants to be a warrior king Add to ...

The new Liberal campaign ad features a shot of Iggy standing in the woods. The long grass is dappled by sunlight streaming through the trees. He tells us we need a government that thinks big. He doesn't look much like a warrior king. He looks like a Harvard professor who has done a bunch of TV that educated people watch.

But a warrior king is what he longs to be. He's discovering that this is much, much tougher than being a philosopher king. "I've been a spectator for a lot of my life, but this is about being an actor and talking responsibilities," he explains to Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. "It's hugely adversarial. It's combat. And you have to be ready for combat, and you have to lead troops into a kind of rhetorical battle. And you've got to show fight. This is not a seminar."

Here's how he shows fight. He says things like, "Mr. Harper, your time is up." He says: "If you mess with me, I will mess with you until I'm done." And: "I can take a punch and I can dish a punch out." He sounds like he's been overdosing on spaghetti westerns.

The trouble is that up till now it's been all talk. You can only bluff and bluster so many times without looking silly. That's why we're having an election, even though voters would prefer a case of herpes. We're having an election so that Michael Ignatieff can show fight.

Some philosopher kings can become warrior kings. Pierre Trudeau was one. Unlike Iggy, he had a set of firm ideas about where to lead the country. He never tried to play down the fact that he was an elitist. Love him or hate him, you knew exactly who he was. Even Stéphane Dion had an idea, although it was a dumb one.

Iggy's big ideas are rather hazy. He seems to want us to hand him the job without explaining what they are. His political skills are still sketchy, in that he hasn't mastered the essential art of ducking questions while pretending to answer them. The other day, when pressed to explain how he'd clean up the deficit without raising taxes, he stalled, then said, "Wait and see."

It's not hard not to conclude that Canada is a stage set for Mr. Ignatieff's fantasy life. He has always been torn between being a man of letters and a man of action, pulled between the ivory tower and the battlefield. He has spent time in nasty war zones. He has dabbled in journalism, because journalism is more exciting than the seminar room. He has written novels, which range from awful to pretty good and feature troubled characters who seem not unlike him.

But ultimately, journalists are spectators too. Although Mr. Ignatieff has a reputation for ruthlessness, he is really a romantic idealist who craves excitement and the romance of action. That's why he couldn't resist becoming a player.

Unfortunately, observers who become players tend to lack survival skills. Mr. Ignatieff himself wrote an entire novel on this theme, called Charlie Johnson in the Flames. Charlie (another anguished soul) is a veteran war correspondent in a place very like the Balkans, where Mr. Ignatieff spent a lot of time. Consumed by outrage and a sort of suicidal idealism, he abandons his professional detachment to track down a war criminal who is responsible for a terrible atrocity. The story does not end well. (Warning: Plot spoiler here.) In the climactic scene, the villain laughs at Charlie's naïveté and throws him off a balcony to his death.

I fear that something like this will be Iggy's fate. Despite his efforts to study up, he is not a natural-born politician. Neither is his opponent, Stephen Harper. But Mr. Harper is very shrewd, and has had more time in the arena.

Here's another example of Mr. Ignatieff's lack of instinct. He had a golden opportunity this summer to jump into the U.S. health-care debate. He could have used his connections to go on Fox and CNN to praise the virtues of the much-maligned Canadian system (while hinting to the home front that Stephen Harper secretly agrees with Sarah Palin). He had a chance to look like Captain Canada. But I guess he was busy.

Mr. Ignatieff is aware that he's no natural. As he told his friend Adam Gopnik, great politicians are like great hockey players. "What is it that a great politician knows?" he wondered. "What is that form of knowledge? The great ones have a skill that is just jaw-dropping, and I'm trying to learn that."

Good luck to him with that. And once I figure out what Karen Kain knows, I'll join the National Ballet.

The paradox of Iggy is that he is phenomenally self-conscious and ferociously smart, but also, at some level, clueless. He figures he can pick up whatever skills are required, even if the instincts aren't there. After all, hasn't he succeeded at everything he's done? And if the role requires a show of sincerity, then he'll fake it. "Nothing is personal in politics, because politics is theatre," he said once. "It is part of the job to pretend to have emotions that you do not actually feel." What he did actually feel was that the people who flattered him and wooed him back to Canada might be right. They told him that only he could lead the Liberal Party and the nation.

Stephen Harper does not deserve such luck. His opponent is yet another man who vastly overestimates his own abilities. Mr. Ignatieff is looking more and more like Mr. Dion, without the accent.

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