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Michael Ignatieff announces his resignation as Liberal Leader at a post-election news conference in Toronto on May 3, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Michael Ignatieff announces his resignation as Liberal Leader at a post-election news conference in Toronto on May 3, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Exclusive Interview

Exit, Michael Ignatieff Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff serves tea on a grey afternoon in the formal sitting room of Stornoway, the official Ottawa residence of the Leader of the Opposition. He wears a comfortable sweater over an open-necked shirt, moccasins with no socks. A cat wanders across laps.

He and his wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, will be moving soon - to be replaced by Jack Layton and Olivia Chow.

For Mr. Ignatieff, the Liberal leader who presided over the unprecedented humiliation of his party and lost his own riding in the tumultuous, harum-scarum election campaign, the detachment from politics has begun.

He has agreed to sit down with me and talk about his election campaign experience because the two of us, it seems, have been discussing his political career since it commenced five years ago. He will not be giving other interviews for a while, he says.

He pours tea. He looks into himself as a politician, he considers the political image that his opponents and the media constructed, he talks about why he wanted to become prime minister.

He had the right message for Canada, he says, but he was the wrong messenger.

Your statement on election night has been praised for being moving, praised for its sincerity. You said you learn best from your defeats. You're not really programmed for defeat. You've been shaped to win all your life. My recollection is that the only defeat you've really experienced is when you got down to Harvard from University of Toronto as a freshly minted graduate student and discovered you were no longer the brightest kid on the block. How are you going to take this as a defeat, what's it going to mean to your personality? You were shaped by your father to win. In your last book, you saw your destiny to be prime minister ...

I would respectfully quarrel with "destiny." There is no such thing, with all due respect. It's just ridiculous. I wanted to be prime minister, but destiny? Hell no. Defeat? All I said on Monday night wasn't meant to open my veins, it was just to say, "Yes, I've learned much more from losing than winning." My sense of my own life is that I've lost as often as I've won, actually. I mean in the same sense that a ballplayer ... you know the greatest ballplayers ever to play the game bat .300. That's how I think of it. And I think there's things to learn from this; they're all about resolution and humility. Just that simple.

Are you okay with humility?

Well (laughter) everyone always says about me that it doesn't come naturally, but you know, I'm learning.

I asked graduate students at University of Toronto's Massey College [where Mr. Ignatieff will become a senior resident] "What do you think of Michael Ignatieff?" One postdoctoral student in English said, "I don't know what I think of Michael Ignatieff because everything I hear about him I've been told by others." She said she never hears what you say coming through. Is she correct? Is that part of what happened?

Yes, maybe. There's me, I'm sitting six feet away from you. There I am. And then there's next to me a creature over whom I've had some control but not all that much, as it turned out. And I think one of the key things in politics is to control that other creature. I think anybody who ... I was going to say, "Anybody who meets me loves me." (Laughter.) You know, I've had one of those lives where before I get into the room some people have an idea about me. Sometimes I can correct that idea, sometimes I can't. And I'm kind of philosophical about that. What I loved about politics was the people. I really loved meeting people, being with people, learning from people, and I don't mean that in the abstract. I can think of the guy in the cowboy hat at a meeting in Sudbury on Thursday night [before the election] ... I can see him, I can remember what he said to me. ... You know, I can go on like this for half an hour. And I hope that he came away with a feeling that he was heard and that I had respect for him, and I'd like that to be true for everybody I met. Not that they agreed, but they thought that I was listening.

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