Welcome to the "strange fishbowl of being prime minister."
The words belong to Stephen Harper himself, the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada who may soon be in the country's highest office for 10 years and yet, in many ways, is no better known today than he was when the first grey appeared in his still-boyishly-thick hair.
He turned 56 on April 30. He may be turned out on Oct. 19 – no one knows that either – but it is safe to assume that this, his fifth campaign as leader, is likely his last. And people, at least those who do not blindly admire him or equally blindly despise him, still don't really know much about him apart from certain facts: that he guided Canada through the 2008 financial meltdown, cut the goods and services tax, killed the long-form census, named Mike Duffy to the Senate, involved the country in war, cut taxes, fought with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, prorogued Parliament, effortlessly dispatched the likes of Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, hates Vladimir Putin but likes the Beatles, and has the ability to engender both fierce loyalty and fierce attack.
With nine days to go in this federal election, Stephen Harper's Conservatives are running neck-and-neck with Justin Trudeau's Liberals. He remains solidly in the race despite such wide-ranging opinion makers as Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi accusing him of "dog whistle" politics by making the niqab a major issue, and former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams, himself a Conservative, calling for those unwilling to vote Liberal or NDP to "don't vote at all – just don't vote for him because he's bad for the country."
Mr. Harper's most recent biographer, Globe and Mail political columnist John Ibbitson, calls him "the most introverted person ever to seek high office in this country" – and yet Mr. Ibbitson also finds him "strangely comfortable in his own skin."
He is a perplexing dichotomy, a non-people person who can only continue with the people's support.
On a day when it is spitting outside, he relaxes between scheduled events and claims he has come to enjoy the campaigning process others believed he considered an unfortunate necessity.
"I've gotten very used to going out and meeting people, pressing the flesh," he says. "And I think I've actually gotten quite good at it … It's something I enjoy."
His supporters cheer for him, vote for him, will even vigorously defend him from a national media some feel has its own agenda to bring him down. They know the basics: He is prime minister, has a wife, Laureen, and two teenaged children, Ben and Rachel, and likes hockey.
Over the years small personal tidbits have come out – he likes to sing, he's a gifted mimic – but such moments are extremely rare. In 2009, when Laureen talked him into playing With a Little Help from My Friends at a National Arts Centre gala, some who had worked closely with him for decades did not even know he played piano.
"Some of it may just be a personality trait of mine," he says. "But I don't believe – and I've had disagreements with advisers over the years – people care that much about me.
"I think as soon as they get a sense of a politician that it's kind of all about him, his kind of being a life-sized personality strutting upon the stage. … I think people would be very suspicious about that, as this implies that this is all about me. It's not about me. It's what we are trying to do for the country. … I do the odd thing because I genuinely enjoy it and people respond to it. But I'm not trying to be on the cover of People magazine."
He is fully aware that he is hated by an impressive number of citizens of the country he runs. Just check the "comments" below. He has been described as ruthless and secretive. He has been compared to Mussolini by a ranking human-rights advocate. He has seen unflattering books published on him. He has been slagged in song by Blue Rodeo and a civil servant. Comedienne Mary Walsh has even given him a new first name – "Stevil."
Another Globe columnist, Lawrence Martin, has called his time in office an "imperial prime ministership." He is said to have overshadowed the traditional legislative and judicial branches with a supersized executive called the PMO – the "boys in short pants," as disgraced Senator Mike Duffy called them.
It's all water off his back. Friends have told him about "Bush Derangement Syndrome," a phrase coined years back by American political commentator Charles Krauthammer to describe an "acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency – nay – the very existence of George W. Bush." Mr. Bush suffered from BDS; friends tell him he has HDS.
"I detach myself from most of that," he says. "I focus on what I'm trying to do. I'm trying, to the best of my ability, to serve the country and promote the wider interest of Canadian families. And I understand that being in public life … is all about being held to account, whether that's fair or unfair, whether it's flattery or kind of extreme denigration.
"In my case, it's not what I focus on. I've got a job to do. I love my job but I am very busy. … I really haven't got time to spend on people sitting at home tweeting nasty messages. I just don't care about that. I care about trying to make people's lives better."
While the political polarization of Canada seems to lag a decade or more behind that of the United States, it has accelerated considerably during his time in office, which also happens to be the era of social media and negative advertising. The road to this election is littered with the fallen from all parties thanks to foolish comments that, in past decades, would mostly have vanished moments after they were made.
Why, then, would anyone run for office in today's increasingly nasty and unforgiving climate?
"Why do people do it?" he says. "I think they do it for a bunch of reasons, but I think most people get into politics because they have strong views, they believe they can contribute something, and I think one of the reasons people stay in it – even those who will sometimes complain about the grind or the more difficult issues – is because it's actually interesting.
"My kids [are] obviously growing up in a very different environment saying, 'We'll never be in politics, it's too hard' and all those things. I say to them, 'I'm never bored.' Every day I go to work is interesting. Every day I go to work what I do is important. How many people can say that about their work? So you've got a chance to contribute, to make a difference in a way that just doesn't exist in most occupations."
What is important to Mr. Harper, he says repeatedly, is the economy and jobs. That is obviously so, but what tends to nudge elections one way or another are the little things, often out of left field. Would Robert Stanfield have become prime minister if he hadn't dropped that football? Was it Brian Mulroney's wagging finger or policy platform that defeated John Turner? Has a Muslim garment, the niqab, enough political explosiveness to shift an entire province? Many have accused Mr. Harper of fear-mongering in this campaign and exploiting the niqab issue to the point of racism. Mr. Harper has his own take.
"I've seen issues come up before that get a lot of press attention," he says. "And sometimes a photograph or sometimes a side issue can move votes, but I always believe that the big votes are moved on the big issues. I don't believe that most people are attracted by the rabbit tracks of day-to-day media coverage.
"[Voters] go and they think, 'What's the best choice for my life and the broader community?' I actually think they make those decisions based on pretty big impressions, and those are not necessarily detailed policy impressions, but they're impressions of action and impressions of leadership."
His own leadership, of course, is under constant examination. There is praise for how Canada sailed through the 2008 world financial crisis relatively unscathed. He believes the recently reached 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership "will really make our country a place where you can do global business in the 21st century." But there are also the criticisms listed above, and more, and a nagging puzzlement at the number of bodies strewn along the way – the lost colleagues from his Reform days, the senators he appointed and turfed, the loyal aide, Nigel Wright, who was shown the door. His most trusted ministers disappeared: Jim Prentice, John Baird and Peter MacKay all resigned. His most able, Jim Flaherty, passed away.
He has been called a control freak – little wonder Michael Harris's highly critical 2014 book is titled Party of One.
If there is a problem, the Prime Minister insists, it lies in "my nature. I am a person of duty, a person of strong work ethic and discipline, etc. My nature is such that I would say, as a general rule, I often don't draw the most out of the personal relationships I encounter in the process of what I am doing, because I am so focused on what I am trying to get done and my responsibilities.
"And so I look back at various stages of my life and think, Yeah, worked with some great people, and knew some great people, and could have done a little more on that side of it. But that's probably a personality trait. I do try and work on it."
It is for him, a moment of remarkable and telling reflection – just a moment. "But," he quickly adds, "my responsibility as Prime Minister of Canada, you're responsible for part of the lives of every single family, whether you know them or not. And so that's what I try and keep focused on."
As for political regrets, he is not interested in visiting them. "I've got a whole national press going around telling me what I'm doing wrong every day – I don't need to feel that particular story."
As for what he takes most pride in over this past decade of difficult Canadian politics, he says his answer will surprise.
"I hope, and have every reason to believe, that when this is over I'll be able to look back and say that through all of the pressure cooker and the kind of strange fishbowl of being prime minister, I think Laureen and I have brought up two wonderful people, Ben and Rachel. They are going to be wonderful young men and women who are going to have good lives and contribute to their communities and their countries. That's what I am most proud of.
"My father always said, 'Whatever you do in life, your children will be your most important legacy.'"
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Jim Flaherty. This version has been corrected.